WALLA WALLA, Wash.—The Puget Sound basketball team advanced to the Northwest Conference tournament final for the second time in three years Thursday night with a 71-66 victory at Whitman at the Sherwood Center in Walla Walla, Wash.
Puget Sound grabbed the lead for good with 1:40 left in the game when AJ Maw hit a layup. After Maw's field goal, Whitman had three chances to tie or grab the lead, but they missed on all three shots. Whitman's Ben Eisenhardt grabbed the offensive rebound on the last shot and was fouled during the play. He missed the first freebie attempt but hit the second to pull the Missionaries within one with 21 seconds remaining.
On the resulting in-bound play for the Loggers, Nick Holden received the ball and was quickly fouled to stop the clock. He calmly drained both free throws to pull the Loggers up by three with 17 seconds remaining. On Whitman's next possession, the Missionaries' Matt Mounier threw up a three-pointer attempt with nine seconds left, but the shot missed and the Loggers got the rebound. Maw was then fouled and sent to the line where he made two more free throws to ice the game at 71-66 for the visitors.
Until the 6:17 mark of the second half, the teams had essentially traded buckets in the period. Whitman took its first lead of the game with 12:44 left in the second, The Missionaries claimed another lead at the 6:17 mark in the second, Puget Sound came back and took the lead two and a half minutes later. Whitman tallied a second lead with 6:17 remaining in the game, but Puget Sound re-took the advantage on the next possession with a jumper from Erin Barber. Rex Nelson added to the lead with a layup 51 seconds later, and Maw added another layup to put the Loggers up 63-58 with 4:33 left to play. The home team evened up the game with 3:13 left to play, however with a traditional three-point play from Tochi Oti.
Puget Sound took an early 6-0 lead thanks to an early two points from James Osorio and four from Nelson. The Missionaries scored the next four, but the Loggers re-took a six-point advantage with 13:32 left in the first. They hit that margin again with 10:40 remaining in the period after a couple of free throws from Holden.
In all, Puget Sound saw six total six-point leads in the first, but the Missionaries rattled off seven straight points from the 5:51 to the 2:46 marks to pull even at 25-all. Puget Sound answered with four points over the next two minutes, but Whitman hit a three-pointer with three seconds left in the half to pull within one at 29-28 going into the break.
"I'm very proud of our guys' resiliency," said Puget Sound head coach Justin Lunt. "Whitman is a great team and our guys did an excellent job keeping our composure in a packed gym. It was a great win."
The game was close throughout with eight tie scores and 12 lead changes. The Loggers' largest lead was seven with 5:51 remaining in the first while the hosts only ever led by two at the most. Puget Sound outshot Whitman 50.9% to 34.8% from the field, but Whitman hit five three-pointers as opposed to one from Puget Sound to stay alive. Both teams shot similarly from the free throw line with Puget Sound hitting 14 of 22 freebies for a 63.6% mark and the Missionaries going 15 of 23 for a 65.2% clip. Whitman out-rebounded Puget Sound 39 to 37, but the Loggers passed the ball better, tallying 13 assists as opposed to four from the home team.
Nelson led all scorers with 25 points, tying a career high he's hit twice this season already. Barber, Maw, and Holden also hit double-digits in points scored, and Holden grabbed eight rebounds to lead the Loggers as well. The junior forward added three blocked shots against Whitman while both Maw and Matt Reid dished out four assists each.
With the win, the Loggers advance to the NWC tournament finals for the second time in three years and the fifth time since 2006. They faced Whitworth in their last finals appearance in 2012, falling 86-71 in Spokane. In this year's edition of the tournament championship game, the Loggers will again travel to Spokane to face Whitworth. That game will take place Saturday, March 1 at 7:00 p.m. at Whitworth Fieldhouse in Spokane, Wash.