Pacific Lutheran University is very familiar with its traditional February role in men’s basketball — chase down the playoff leaders.
The must-win and somebody-else-has-to-lose situations have not worked out for the Lutes in recent seasons.
Now their position is different: The Lutes are frontrunners to make the Northwest Conference postseason tournament for the first time since 2010-11.
They solidified their standing by sweeping the weekend homestand with a convincing 81-63 victory over Linfield on Saturday at Olson Auditorium in Parkland.
Senior Bryce Miller scored a season-high 23 points for PLU (14-7, 7-5 in NWC), which holds a three-game advantage over these same Wildcats, Pacific, Lewis & Clark and Willamette with four games to play.
“I’ve never been in this situation (to go to the playoffs) before, so I am going to relish it,” Miller said. “But we are also not going to take it easy these last four games.”
Linfield (10-11, 4-8) had been playing its best basketball coming in, winner of three games in a row.
But the Lutes dismantled the Wildcats with what coach Steve Dickerson admitted was their best half of basketball in a decade.
Linfield could not contain Miller in the interior. He tallied 13 points. PLU fed off that with five 3-pointers as part of its 15-for-31 shooting.
Markus Glenn came off the bench to hit a 3-pointer. And 30 seconds later, Kyle Foreman added another one from the left side to give the Lutes a 39-12 lead at the 3:07 mark of the first half.
“We got every loose ball, we moved the ball and defensively we tightened the noose on them,” Dickerson said.
After a junior year of battling injuries, Miller is having his best season. The 6-foot-6 senior from Fife is making defenses have to collapse around him.
“Last year, I had an episode of shingles for about three weeks early on, and I never really got back into shape. Once I did, I felt out of sync … and I lost a lot of confidence,” Miller said.
“This year, my goal was to step up and be a leader — and be that consistent rock.”
At Willamette 100, Puget Sound 89: The Bearcats made 11 3-pointers, and shot 57.7 percent from the floor in upsetting the Loggers in Salem, Oregon.
The loss sent UPS (12-9, 7-5) into a tie with PLU for third place in the conference.
Kyle King paced the Loggers with 23 points. Nico Troplent had 22 points, and Brendon McCullough added 21 for the Bearcats.
At PLU 70, Linfield 65: Eatonville product Kaelyn Voss scored a team-high 14 points, and the Lutes snapped a six-game losing streak with a win in Parkland.
PLU’s 14-point lead with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter was reduced to 68-65 on Paige Graham’s layup with 27 seconds to go.
Graham missed a game-tying 3-point attempt with six seconds remaining, and Ionna Price closed it out for the Lutes (7-14, 3-9) with two free throws in the final seconds.
UPS 64, at Willamette 59: The Loggers are certainly enjoying life on the road in the conference.
They won their fourth consecutive game away from Memorial Fieldhouse, getting 14 points apiece from Emily Sheldon and Samone Jackson in Salem.
Kylie Towry’s 3-pointer with 1:07 to go cut the Loggers’ lead to 56-55. But Jackson hit all four of her free throws in the final 44 seconds to keep UPS (14-7, 9-3) alone in second place behind George Fox.