|Alexis Noren is the straw that stirs the drink for the first-place Loggers.
Puget Sound Athletics photo
The final week of the regular season won't be too stressful for Loree Payne.
Yes, Payne wants her sixth-ranked Puget Sound women's basketball team to keep making progress and cap an unbeaten Northwest Conference regular season.
But the championship race has been decided in the region's toughest-at-the-top league. UPS beat No. 17 Whitman in overtime for the second time this year last Friday, 89-82, then clinched its first ever NWC outright title Saturday with a 78-58 win over Whitworth.
The Loggers also swept No. 24 George Fox, including a win at GFU that hadn't been done by a UPS team since 2007.
"The kids are all about breaking records this year and making school history," Payne said. "That's one of the big things that they're playing for night in and night out, practice in and practice out. It's a very special time for the program."
All of this looks even more impressive when you realize it was achieved by a team that lost the NWC's most valuable player. Emily Sheldon, who averaged 20.2 points for last year's runner-up team, graduated. Yet, the Loggers have gotten even better.
"Our freshmen aren't playing like freshmen and they haven't been since almost day one, which has been a huge piece of our success," Payne said. "You look at George Fox, Whitman, they're nationally prominent programs and it's pretty amazing to be able to go through both of them. It's exciting.
"I feel like we're really taking steps in our program to get ourselves as a consistently nationally-prominent program."
Having first-team all-NWC do-it-all guard Alexis Noren back was definitely a help. The senior can really fill up a stat sheet, averaging 12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.7 steals.
Noren seems to always come close to a triple-double.
"She does all the things in every category that you just can't match," Payne said. "Defensively, she is hands-down our best defender. It is going to be incredibly hard to replace her, just because she's so multidimensional in everything that she brings to the team.
"Her leadership has just exploded this season. The team absolutely loves her. Just one of the greatest kids you can have on the team."
A pair of sophomores lead the team in scoring. Samone Jackson averages 17.0 points, Elizabeth Prewitt 15.2.
Then, as Payne said, freshmen have made a big impact. Jamie Lange averages 11.7 points and 8.1 boards inside while Caitlin Malvar averages 7.6 points and 3.7 assists, both off the bench.
UPS' only blemish is a non-conference defeat to Trinity (Texas). It closes the season with road trips to Pacific Lutheran (0-14 NWC) and Pacific (5-9).
Sure, the title is wrapped up, but you know an unbeaten run would mean a lot.
If you look hard enough, you can find something for every team to play for this week.
The Northwest Conference men's championship has been wrapped up as well, with No. 2 Whitman earning its first outright conference title since 1981.
The Blues went through No. 5 Whitworth for this, beating the rival Pirates by a combined 30 points.
A third meeting is likely in next week's NWC tournament. A fourth? It will be interesting to see what the committee does with these two.
Whitman (23-0) will try to finish the regular season unbeaten with home games against Lewis and Clark and George Fox next week.
On the women's side, No. 2 St. Thomas has a chance to go undefeated for the second time in three years. The Tommies won 30 games in 2014-15 before falling to Thomas More in the national championship.
UST only played fellow MIAC contenders Gustavus Adolphus and Bethel once this season, but give it credit for getting by both those tests and the rest of what's always a tough MIAC slate.
The Tommies still have to clinch the title this week, with Gustavus one game back and Bethel two. On the schedule: road trips to St. Mary's and Concordia.
The UW-Superior women still haven't lost to a UMAC team since the switch over from the WIAC last year.
The Yellowjackets are beating conference teams by an average of 20 points and travel to Crown on Friday before what will likely be a huge game Saturday at Minnesota-Morris. The Cougars are only a game back of UWS entering the week.
The 10th-ranked Wartburg women will certainly feel like they should be in the category above.
The Knights exacted some revenge last week with a 76-54 win over Luther, the only IIAC team to beat them this season.
That win gave Wartburg its first IIAC title since 2003.
In the final week, the Knights prepare for tournament play with a trip to Dubuque and Senior Day a home game against Buena Vista. (This team doesn't have any seniors, which is pretty scary for the rest of the IIAC).
Look to wrap up conference titles this week.
The Northwestern men are two points away from an unblemished UMAC record. One-point losses to St. Scholastica and Northland mean the Eagles have clinched only a share of the league title entering the week.
But it's a safe bet Northwestern will take it outright – Friday's game is against 0-14 Martin Luther before wrapping up the regular season against Bethany Lutheran.
CMS dropped two of three games last week, perhaps showing some effects of losing senior point guard Scott Lynds to an injury a couple weeks back.
But the Stags (11-2 SCIAC) are still two games up on three teams in the loss column with three games to go. Cal Lutheran is one of those teams and they square off Thursday before CMS hosts Chapman and visits Occidental, certainly not pushovers.
Getting plenty of contributions from guys outside Michael Scarlett (18.8 points per game in conference play) would help a bunch.
Still a chance
Not in prime position, but not completely out of at least a share of a title either.
Chasing Northwestern in the UMAC are St. Scholastica and Bethany Lutheran, both 10-4. While a share of the title is unlikely for reasons above, it's still a rather important week for each team.
BLC will be favored against North Central, but not Northwestern, while CSS has a tough road trip to Minnesota-Morris before taking on Crown. If the Vikings avoid a loss, they get the No. 2 seed and all that comes with it – a bye to the semifinals, home court advantage there – by virtue of sweeping the Saints.
St. Scholastica will be rooting for Northwestern (likely, unless Martin Luther upsets the Eagles and somehow creates a co-champion scenario) to knock off Bethany Lutheran and give it a chance at the second seed with two wins.
The rest of the SCIAC men's championship race is messy (but just wait until we get to the women). La Verne (9-4), Pomona-Pitzer (9-4) and Cal Lutheran (8-4) are all still in it, not to mention playing for home-court advantage in the tournament semifinals by grabbing the second seed.
With a good chunk of games left (La Verne and Pomona-Pitzer each have three, CLU four) it's tough to pinpoint the most impactful games. Cal Lutheran and La Verne meet Saturday, while Pomona-Pitzer avoids any of the other three contenders. CLU also has (gets?) to play CMS on Thursday.
Still a prayer
Let's face it, it's tougher to expect to make up ground on a team that's undefeated in conference play.
Nonetheless, these teams are still in their respective league championship races.
Minnesota-Morris (13-1) gets a shot at UW-Superior in the UMAC women's finale after hosting St. Scholastica on Friday.
If the Cougars beat the Saints, they'll have a shot at a share of the title (outright is unlikely, UWS plays 0-14 Crown the night before).
The first meeting was quite competitive – it was 34-34 at halftime and Morris led in the second half before a 9-0 third-quarter run put Superior up 50-41 that led to an 81-72 final.
Gustavus Adolphus is ranked 13th in this week's women's top 25 and clearly has a shot to go on a postseason run. The Golden Gusties close with St. Catherine and Carleton, looking to clinch the second seed in the MIAC and a bye with one win.
Bethel (14-2) has beaten everyone but St. Thomas and Gustavus and looks to gear up for another shot at one or both with games against Concordia and and St. Kate's this week. The Royals would need two wins and two Gustavus losses for the No. 2 seed.
Even if UST was upset twice, Bethel wouldn't get the No. 1 seed because of the head-to-head 71-62 defeat. Against Gustavus, it was a 62-58 loss. Clearly Bethel has just as good a shot as anyone in the MIAC playoffs.
An absolute mess
Good luck figuring out these three championship races.
It's impressive the IIAC men have it down to three teams, actually. For a while it looked like as many as eight were in contention before some separation the last few weeks.
Loras (10-4) and Buena Vista (10-4) have a half-game advantage over Nebraska Wesleyan (10-5).
The big game to watch is likely Saturday, when the Duhawks entertain NWU – Loras won the first meeting on a buzzer beater.
But BV doesn't have easy, traveling to Central and Wartburg, who, as you'll see, will be fighting to keep their seasons going.
The Beavers split with both other contenders.
In the MIAC, St. Thomas drew the curse of the Around the West column, losing two of three games after last week's feature was published.
The Tommies (13-5) are now tied with Bethel (14-5) in the loss column, but swept the Royals and so would take the No. 1 seed by winning out.
Bethel can clinch a share of the title by beating Concordia on Wednesday. UST takes on St. Mary's, then Concordia.
And then we have Carleton, one of the better stories around entering the postseason. The Knights have won 11 games in a row since a 4-8 start and now sit third in the MIAC at 12-6.
Carleton will be rooting for Concordia this week as it takes on St. Olaf and Gustavus. That winning streak includes a 69-51 win against Bethel and 79-63 triumph over St. Thomas. You'd almost have to make Carleton the MIAC tournament favorite, right?
On the women's side of the SCIAC, Chapman (11-2) is in the lead but still has three games to play. Only one (Saturday at CMS) is against a fellow championship contender, but Occidental and Whittier are right in the middle of the league.
CMS (11-3) and Cal Lutheran (10-3) both have three losses and play Wednesday. The Athenas can make quite an impact, hosting both the Regals and Panthers.
Redlands is still in this as well at 10-4 and with very winnable road trips to Whittier and Pomona-Pitzer left on the schedule.
Home court clinched
Whitworth's men are back in the top five of the national rankings and have the No. 2 seed clinched in the NWC.
The Pirates will be preparing to not get caught looking ahead to a potential third meeting with Whitman in the NWC title game.
Playing for home court
Not in contention for No. 1 seeds, but looking for (at least) one more home game.
An overtime loss to Macalester means St. John's (11-7) is out of contention for a MIAC bye. But the Johnnies are still a game up on Hamline before Wednesday's rematch of an overtime thriller won by SJU.
Win that and St. John's will host the quarterfinals after taking on St. Mary's. And it very well could be Hamline who the Johnnies face again next week.
Although Luther has been tougher in recent weeks, Simpson (8-7) just needs a win against the last-place Norse to grab an the IIAC men's No. 4 seed. Even with a loss, the Storm look pretty good to get in the tournament, but that would open the door for Dubuque – with games against Wartburg and Coe – to grab home court in the quarterfinals.
The Luther women are in control for the other IIAC bye despite disappointing losses to Buena Vista and Dubuque after the upset of Wartburg.
The Norse are two games up on Buena Vista and Loras with Simpson and Central left on the schedule.
The Beavers have Central and Wartburg, while the Duhawks will be favored against Coe and Nebraska Wesleyan. Both teams are two games up on the next best teams and would get home-court advantage in the quarterfinals with just one win (or, losses from Coe and NWU).
In the MIAC women's standings, St. Catherine and St. Benedict are each 9-7 and tied for the last quarterfinal home-court spot. The Blazers have a leg up with their schedule – Hamline and St. Mary's – while the Wildcats have to face championship contenders Gustavus and Bethel.
A women's top-25 battle Saturday between George Fox and host Whitman is likely a preview of next week's NWC semifinals. As long as both hold court Friday, the winner takes home court in the tournament.
If Bethany Lutheran (8-6) doesn't stumble against North Central, it should take home-court advantage in the UMAC quarterfinals over Martin Luther (7-7).
Northwestern (10-4), meanwhile is close to clinching the third seed with Martin Luther and Bethany Lutheran on the schedule this week.
Probably traveling in the conference tournaments, but there nonetheless.
Speaking of the UMAC, the sixth seed is also locked up with St. Scholastica (5-9) having swept North Central (3-11) this season.
Northland (10-6) has quarterfinal home court sealed on the men's side, while Minnesota-Morris (8-6) is also in; the Lumberjacks swept the Cougars this season.
Both teams are two games back in the loss column of Bethany Lutheran and St. Scholastica, which plays Morris Friday. I suppose you can't rule out a five-way tie for second just yet.
Close to safe
Barring a mixture of upsets, these teams should be playing next week.
Linfield has a lot going for it on the NWC men's side. The Wildcats (7-7) are clinging to the fourth seed right now, but George Fox (8-6) and Pacific Lutheran (6-8) have the Whits this week.
If Linfield takes care of last-place Willamette in the finale, it's looking pretty good. Beat PLU on Friday, even better.
The Lewis and Clark women don't have it easy, considering No. 17 Whitman is on the schedule, but one win puts the Pioneers – who take on Whitowrth on Saturday – in the tournament. Whitworth would have to upset George Fox to give itself a chance against L&C.
As long as Hamline beats Macalester on Saturday in the MIAC – easier said then done – the Pipers are in. Even with a loss, other teams' schedules are difficult enough that Hamline still has a good shot.
In for a fight
Where you'll see which teams have given up on their seasons and which are together enough to fight for another day of practice.
Already mentioned Dubuque in the home-court section, but the Spartans aren't safely in. With games against teams fighting to keep their seasons going – Wartburg and Coe – UD (7-7) will have to come to play.
Central (6-8) and Wartburg (6-8) are tied for the last tournament spot, but the Dutch have an advantage by sweeping the Knights. Of course it would help Wartburg a ton to beat UD on Wednesday, particularly because Buena Vista awaits Saturday.
Central takes on BV on Wednesday, but has last-place Luther on Saturday. Then there's Coe, which at 5-9 just snapped an eight-game losing streak to give itself a chance. The Kohawks have challenging home games against Loras and Dubuque this week, definitely needing at least one win and some help.
Augsburg is out of the playoffs as of today, but still has a good chance to grab the sixth spot of three (technically four) teams fighting for it. First up is a winnable game against Macalester which, it must be noted, has been playing better lately. Then the regular season ends with a road trip to St. Olaf (9-9) and a chance to clinch the head-to-head advantage against the Oles, who would have to stop an absolute freight train in Carleton to not be in position to lose its bid.
Concordia is also 9-9 but won't be favored in either of its games this week – at Bethel, then home against St. Thomas.
Having to play the Whits means you can't count on a win. That's the situation George Fox (8-6) and Lewis and Clark (6-8) find themselves in in the NWC men's race.
Obviously it doesn't look good for the Pioneers. Fox can root for Linfield to beat Pacific Lutheran (6-8) on Friday. But all three of those teams could easily end up 8-8.
With the Whits having their seeds clinched, this would be the week to predict an upset.
UW-Superior and Crown enter the week 5-9 in the UMAC men's standings. North Central is one game back. The big game is Friday when UWS hosts Crown. NCU has to upset Bethany Lutheran to give itself a chance before a regular-season finale against winless Martin Luther.
Neither Crown (St. Scholastica), nor Superior (at Morris) will be favored Saturday, making Friday loom even larger.
Four teams are fighting for two spots in the IIAC women's tournament and neither have a favorable schedule.
Coe (6-8) has the advantage in the loss column but both Nebraska Wesleyan (at Loras) and Simpson (Luther) need prepare for only one game as 6-9 teams.
Dubuque has a shot but No. 10 Wartburg is the opponent Wednesday, making Saturday a likely must-win at Coe.
St. Mary's is hanging on to the last MIAC women's tournament bid at 7-9, but with games against St. Thomas and St. Benedict this week, it's far from sewn up.
Augsburg could be the favorite at 6-10 and with Macalester and St. Olaf on the schedule. Carleton is also 6-10 but has to play Gustavus after Wednesday's crosstown rivalry against the Oles.
Conference tournament bids are unlikely, but crazier things have happened, right?
Believe Caltech and Chapman are mathematically in the SCIAC picture, but neither have a good chance at 5-8. They'd need to win their last three games and pull for CLU to lose four in a row. Caltech plays CLU in next Tuesday's regular-season finale.
The Concordia women are 5-11, two games out of the MIAC and with No. 2 St. Thomas up on Wednesday. With an upset, another tall challenge would stand Saturday against St. Benedict if enough falls the Cobbers' way to keep them in it.
If the Puget Sound men beat Pacific Lutheran on Tuesday, they'll have to root for the Lutes to beat Linfield on Friday, then beat Pacific themselves Saturday while hoping last-place Willamette forces a tie by upsetting Linfield.
As mentioned in another section, Whitworth would have to upset No. 24 George Fox if it can beat Lewis and Clark on Friday. The Bruins won the first meeting, 90-67.
One week left
Conference tournaments won't happen for these teams. But the spoiler role can be just as exciting, especially at home.
IIAC Men: Luther (2-12)
MIAC Men: Macalester (5-13), Gustavus Adolphus (5-14), St. Mary's (4-14)
NWC Men: Pacific (4-10), Willamette (2-12)
SCIAC Men: Occidental (5-8), Whittier (3-10), Redlands (3-10)
UMAC Men: Martin Luther (0-14)
IIAC Women: Central (2-12)
MIAC Women: St. Olaf (4-12), Macalester (3-13), Hamline (2-14)
NWC Women: Pacific (5-9), Willamette (5-9), Linfield (3-11), Pacific Lutheran (0-14)
SCIAC Women: Occidental (8-6), Whittier (6-7), La Verne (2-11), Pomona-Pitzer (1-12), Caltech (1-12)
UMAC Women: Northland (4-12), North Central (3-11), Crown (0-14)