The weekend plan seems pretty simple for the Puget Sound Loggers women’s basketball team.
On Saturday, go play undefeated George Fox University for the Northwest Conference tournament championship in Newberg, Oregon.
Win or lose, on Sunday — still breathe easy. The 18th-ranked Loggers should be returning to the NCAA Division III national tournament for the first time since 2010.
It was all set up by the Loggers’ nail-biting 71-64 victory over No. 23 Whitworth in the conference semifinals Thursday night at Memorial Fieldhouse in Tacoma.
Amanda Forshay led UPS (23-3) with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Emily Sheldon added 13 points, and Katy Ainslie and Alex Noren had 11 in game the Loggers led the entire way.
UPS will face the third-ranked Bruins (26-0) on Saturday night for the NWC championship. These two schools faced off four consecutive times in the conference finals from 2007-2010.
“We are going to take it by the horns and run with it, and do the best we can in the championship game,” Forshay said. “And we are going to have a lot of fun while we are doing it.”
With both teams’ up-tempo styles and ability to get into the lane for crafty shots, this was both an intense and entertaining semifinal showdown between two teams who had split the season series.
Back-to-back Ashley Agcaoili 3-pointers, and another bucket by Sheldon gave the Loggers their largest lead — 50-35 — with 13:15 remaining.
Even with UPS leading 60-47 with 7:42, for some reason the lead never felt secure. And the Pirates showed why,
They scored on seven of eight possessions, capped by Katara Belton-Sharp’s easy layup to trim it to 65-64 at the 2:04 mark.
That is when the Loggers turned to defense — and, in particular, to their stopper in Noren, a 5-foot-10 sophomore.
The biggest play came with under a minute remaining — with the Loggers trying to protect a 68-64 lead.
Lexie Zappone thought she had an open look, and lifted for a fadeaway jumper from the free-throw line. The ball only went a few feet after Noren blocked it, giving the Loggers possession.
“I just tried to not get back on my heels,” said Noren, who added three steals, all in the second half. “I guess I was in the right spot at the right time. I just kept my hand up and tried not to get a silly foul like I have been known to get in the past.”
Noren got one of those steals on Whitworth’s next possession, then knocked down two free throws with 21 seconds remaining to finally put the Pirates (21-5) away.
“In those moments when the game gets close … we’ve gotten pretty good at looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Stay calm, we are going to be fine,’ ” Forshay said.
If the Loggers win Saturday night, they will earn the conference’s automatic berth to the national tournament. If they lose, they have to hope for an at-large bid — something that appears to be likely based on their high West Regional ranking.
“Right now, we are just focused on the (NWC) championship,” UPS coach Loree Payne said. “If you have that automatic qualifier, you have your golden ticket. Otherwise, you are waiting until Monday.
“But we have that opportunity to win it now. These kids deserve it. It is right in front of them.”