Coach Loree Payne says the time to make a championship statement is now.
She will find out Friday if her 22nd-ranked University of Puget Sound women’s basketball team is prepared to do that.
Overcoming a couple of early lulls, the Loggers ran by cross-town rival Pacific Lutheran, 76-63, on Tuesday at Memorial Fieldhouse in Tacoma.
It was the Loggers’ 12th consecutive win over the Lutes, dating back to the 2008-09 Northwest Conference season.
A 15-0 UPS run in the first half erased an early deficit, and the Loggers’ lead never got below nine points the rest of the way.
The luxury Payne has with this group, she can turn to instant-offense players on her bench. And on Tuesday, it was Peninsula High School product Hannah Lekson who got it going.
She scored six of the team’s points in the 15-0 run, capped by her running 12-foot bank shot, that gave UPS (15-2, 6-2 in NWC) a 21-8 lead with 9:59 remaining in the first half.
“Hannah is so athletic,” Payne said. “She can do things we haven’t had players be able to do here before.”
PLU (4-13, 1-7) scored eight consecutive points in a 45-second span — highlighted by 3-pointers from Bailey Raines and Tayler Flemming — to trim the Loggers’ advantage to 29-20 with 5:05 to go. But the Lutes — in the middle of a rebuilding phase under second-year coach Jennifer Childress — went the rest of the half without a field goal.
“That’s the mental toughness aspect of it,” Childress said. “We have to figure out how to get over that hump and battle back.”
Forward Amanda Forshay’s 13 points and 13 rebounds led the Loggers while Katy Ainslie added 13 points. Jori Hall and reserve guard Madison Green-Hayward paced the Lutes with 14 points apiece.
Now the entire conference championship race is right in front of the Loggers as they get to host the three other contenders — George Fox, Whitman and Whitworth — in the second half of the season.
“We are playing up and down a little bit. … We had moments of greatness tonight, but we didn’t buckle down when we needed to,” Payne said. “We are a veteran team, and we need to play like it — night in and night out.”
It starts Friday with a showdown against fifth-ranked George Fox, which sits atop the NWC standings. The Bruins have won 10 games in a row against the Loggers, including an earlier 77-55 victory in Newberg, Oregon.
“It is obviously a big game against the (No. 5) team in the nation,” Forshay said. “We are the underdogs, which should give us more fire to play the game we know we can play.”