ON COLLEGE HOOPS/BY PAUL DANZER/Portland State women battle on road, close in on conference lead

It hasn't been the smoothest of rides during the first half of the Big Sky schedule for the Portland State women's basketball team.

But in spite of some nagging injuries and some illness, the Vikings are just 1 1/2 games off the lead in what has become a highly competitive conference.

"I'm really proud of this team," third-year coach Lynn Kennedy says. "They've really fought through a lot of injuries, we've had some sickness and just catching up on studies. It does wear on you when you play so many road games."

The Vikings, who are playing home games at Lewis & Clark while Viking Pavilion construction continues, played seven of their 10 nonconference games on the road.

At 5-3 in conference, PSU enters a Thursday game at Idaho right behind three teams with 6-3 records, including the Vandals. Montana (7-2) tops the standings, followed by Weber State (6-2). Eight teams are .500 or better in conference play.

The Vikings have demonstrated toughness and resiliency. In each of their two most recent games, they overcame second-half deficits to win. In Saturday's victory at Sacramento State, PSU trailed by 11 points in the third quarter. Trailing by two with 3:39 left, the Viks held the Hornets scoreless and scored the final 11 points.

As much as he would prefer to play with a lead, Kennedy says come-from-behind wins are beneficial.

"I think it shows our toughness and mentality, being able to finish games," Kennedy says. "Of course you want leads early. But I tell you what, in tournament time it's going to be close, it's going to be physical, it's going to be tight all the way through. A team that finds a way to win at the end, those are usually the teams that are successful."

Kennedy says his team's versatility has helped it weather playing through more injury challenges than he has experienced in other seasons as a coach. And it makes his Vikings a challenge for opponents to prepare for.

One example is post Courtney West. In the most recent win at Sacramento State, the 6-4 junior from Sydney, Australia, scored a career-high 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting. If a defense focuses too much on Sidney Rielly or Ashley Bolston, then West (whose .513 field-goal percentage ranks second in the conference) has room to get busy inside.

"That's a great part about this team. I think it's hard to scout us. Because at any time one of our players can go for 25 to 30, and then the next game it can be somebody else," Kennedy says.

West's main role is at the other end of the floor, where her 50 blocked shots lead the conference. Her average of six defensive rebounds a game ranks fourth in the league.

"If we have that intensity from her, defensively we're a different team," Kennedy says.

Rielly (18.2 points per game), Bolston (15.2) and junior transfer Kiana Brown (12.1) are averaging double figures in scoring.BOLSTON

Bolston, a 6-2 junior guard from South Medford High, is playing her best basketball now, according to Kennedy. She missed the first eight games of the season recovering from off-season surgery.

"She's the most unselfish player that I've ever coached or seen play," Kennedy says. "She could dominate any game just with her ability to get to the basket and knock down shots. But when teams double-team her or face-guard her, she has that ability to find her teammates."

Just about every player has played through injury or illness at some point. Kennedy points to junior guard Corey James as the best example of his team's toughness. Despite back issues, James has started 17 of the Viks' 19 games, averaging 24 minutes.

The Vikings are one of the top scoring teams in the Big Sky (74.2 points). They are third in field-goal percentage and lead the conference in assists, averaging almost 17 per game. In the win at Sac State, PSU had assists on 24 of 30 baskets.

Freshman point guard Kylie Jimenez has been particularly efficient, with a team-leading 87 assists and only 29 turnovers. Her three-to-one ratio is best in the conference.

The assists, and the offense in general, have been positives. Kennedy is focusing on improving the defense between now and the conference tournament.

"I'd like to see our rebounding step up," he says. He wants his team "playing better defense, but not allowing second-chance points. That gives a lot of energy back to the opponent."

Kennedy says with all of the injuries, he hasn't used full-court defense as much as he would like.

If they are healthy and dialed in, the Vikings have a shot to make some noise when the conference tournament rolls around March 5-10 at Reno, Nevada. Last season, PSU reached the semifinals.

Kennedy says the level of play across the Big Sky has improved this season. He believes as many as eight teams are good enough to win the Big Sky tournament and that the conference should have several teams playing postseason ball beyond that.

Improved recruiting and tougher nonconference scheduling is paying off around the league, Kennedy says. He points to Idaho State's 20-point win over Washington, Northern Colorado beating DePaul and his team's win over Mississippi as evidence of the improved quality of Big Sky women's basketball.

"Even when we're playing the high-level opponents and losing, it's closer games. It's competitive and that helps us in our conference," he says

The Vikings (11-8 overall) play only four of their remaining 10 games at their temporary home, where they are 6-2. After games Thursday at Idaho and Saturday at Eastern Washington, they play host to Montana on Feb. 8, Montana State on Feb. 10, Southern Utah on Feb. 22 and Northern Arizona on Feb. 24.

Victor Sanders homecoming

The struggling Portland State men's basketball team faces a tough challenge at 8 p.m. Thursday when Idaho visits Lewis & Clark's Pamplin Sports Complex. The Vandals — led by senior guard Victor Sanders — will be looking to avenge a last-second loss to the Vikings at Moscow on Jan. 6.

Sanders, a Jefferson High grad, scored 28 points that night. The 6-5 guard is averaging 20 per game, third in the Big Sky. He scored 26 in a win over North Dakota on Saturday and is second on Idaho's all-time list with 1,635 points.

Portland State (13-8) has lost consecutive home games and three of four overall to fall to 3-5 in conference play. After averaging 93.5 points in 13 nonconference games, the Vikings are averaging 78.9 in Big Sky games and are coming off a season-low 61 points in a home loss to Sacramento State. … The Vikings hit 39 percent of their 3-pointers in nonconference but are making only 28 percent of their 3's since league play started. … PSU is averaging 23.4 fouls per game, the most among 351 Division I teams.

After playing host to Idaho — which is 6-3 in conference and the top defensive team in the Big Sky — PSU will play host to Eastern Washington at 1 p.m. Saturday.

• After losing to the top two teams in the West Coast Conference last week, Terry Porter's Portland Pilots men (8-15, 2-8 WCC) have a realistic shot at victories this week with games at the Chiles Center against the two teams below the Pilots in the WCC. On Thursday, it's Pepperdine (4-18, 1-9) at 7 p.m. On Saturday, it's Loyola Marymount (6-15, 1-9) at 1 p.m.

Small-college scene

After starting its Great Northwest Athletic Conference schedule 5-2, the Concordia women's basketball team has lost five in a row. Despite the slump, 6-1 junior Bailey Cartwright has recorded double-doubles in nine of the last 10 games. The Pasco, Washington, native ranks fourth in NCAA Division II with 13 double-doubles this season. She ranks 11th in the nation for rebounds (218) and rebounds per game (10.9). Cavaliers guard Keesha Sharman's 5.3 assists per game ranks 25th in NCAA Division II.

• Warner Pacific (16-7, 10-4) is one of four men's basketball teams in the Cascade Collegiate Conference with 10 wins after beating Oregon Tech for the second time and losing to Southern Oregon for the second time this season. The Knights play this weekend at Northwest Christian and at Corban before key home games Feb. 9-10 against Eastern Oregon and first-place College of Idaho.

• The Lewis & Clark men's basketball team welcomes two of the best NCAA D-III teams in the nation to Pamplin Sports Center on Friday and Saturday. No. 1-ranked Whitman (19-0) visits at 8 p.m. Friday. No. 4 Whitworth (17-2) visits at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Pioneers (7-12, 3-7 Northwest Conference) have been competitive in most games, including seven-point losses at Whitman and at Whitworth in early January. L&C has won two of its last three, with the loss coming in double overtime at Pacific.

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