WALLA WALLA — The sounds bled through the walls of the visitor’s locker room deep under the Sherwood Athletic Center.
Primal howls, the staccato bang of fists against lockers.
Then, a hush.
“That was when Coach walked in,” said junior Rex Nelson, the University of Puget Sound’s aircraft carrier of a power forward.
The facial expression on coach Justin Lunt was a shocker.
“We’re used to a serious face,” Nelson said. “This time, he opened up with a smile. That’s when the roars came back.”
And why not? UPS kept its season alive by surviving a meat grinder of a Northwest Conference tournament semifinal Thursday, holding off Whitman, 71-66, to advance to the title game against Whitworth in Spokane on Saturday.
Nelson had a game-high 25 points, Erin Barber added 13 and
A.J. Maw 12 for the Loggers (15-11), who sealed the game at the free-throw line in the final seconds.
The free throws – two by Nick Holden for a three-point lead with 17 seconds left, and two from Maw for the final margin – capped a game slathered in the fingerprints of two defenses that made it tough on the offenses.
There were statistical markers – the Loggers’ 18 turnovers, Whitman’s 17.9 percent shooting on 3-pointers – that underlined that fact.
“That was the most physical game I played in all year,” said Nelson, who was 11-for-18 from the floor. “It felt like a football game.”
In a second half that saw seven ties and nine lead changes over the final 13 minutes, 24 seconds, UPS took the lead for good on Maw’s driving bucket at the 1:40 mark. And it matched the Missionaries stop-for-stop, holding the second-seeded hosts without a basket for the final 3:13.
“Each game, we’ve grown as a team,” Nelson said. “We worked hard and battled in practice. That’s what put us in position to win a game like this.”
At Whitman 77, UPS 60: The Loggers had no answer for conference player of the year Heather Johns and faded down the stretch in a loss in Walla Walla that likely ended their season.
Johns scored a career-high 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting and added six rebounds and six assists for the Missionaries, the top-ranked team in the nation.
She took over the game late in the first half, scoring 13 of her 19 first-half points inside the final 7:33 on a series of leaners and jumpers in the lane.
She also assisted on a pair of 3-pointers as Whitman closed the half on a 13-2 run for a 41-26 lead.
UPS (14-12) carved its deficit to six points on Emily Sheldon’s basket with 10:23 left in the second half, but Johns, who had asked out of the game to stretch cramping calves, checked back in and scored 10 points down the stretch.
Amanda Forshay had 14 points for the Loggers, but was held to two after halftime. The all-conference junior forward was 6-for-7 shooting in the first half but was 1-for-8 in the second. Taylor Jones added 12 points and Sheldon nine for UPS.
Whitman (26-0) will host Whitworth in the conference title game Saturday.