Men’s hoops in three-way fight for playoff berth

Tyler Morrill

Sports editor

During winter break, the men’s basketball team turned some heads as it went 8-7, including a 4-1 start in the Northwest Conference.

Before the season, the Wildcats were predicted to end up second to last after finishing last year 3-13 in the NWC. But with a strong start, the ’Cats found themselves at the top of the conference.

Conference play began well for Linfield with its victory over defending NWC champion Whitworth University, 77-70, at home.

“We knew we had a huge first game with Whitworth,” junior guard Brian Murphy said. “We knew they had some of the same guys back. They lost a few, but they are still a good team.”

Maintaining that strong play has proven to be difficult for the team as it has struggled in its last eight games, dropping the ’Cats to a game above a .500 record. They are now in fifth place in the NWC standings.

Linfield is traveling to Pacific Lutheran University Feb. 22 and will face off against Lewis & Clark College at home Feb. 23. These last two games are crucial for the ’Cats’ playoff hopes each is a must-win.

Along with winning out, Linfield needs Willamette University to lose one of its remaining games to secure a postseason berth.

Linfield was looking to redeem itself from the first matchup of the season with Pacific University when it lost by a demoralizing 30 points without Wiser, in the middle.

“We came out and probably played our worst game of the season at their place,” senior guard Steve Taylor said. “As a senior, I wanted to beat them.”

The ’Cats needed to beat Pacific to keep their playoff hopes alive and came out ready in front of the jersey-attired Linfield crowd. Linfield capitalized on its home-court advantage, as it has throughout the season, winning, 95-72.

Freshman center Wiser hit two early 3-point shots From that point on, Linfield never looked back and they led by at least 10 points the rest of the way.

“Obviously the addition of Wiser has been big for us,” Taylor said. “He’s a tremendous player and has the potential to do great things at Linfield.”

The ’Cats were hot the whole night from the floor, shooting 54 percent throughout the game, including nine 3-pointers. Taylor added four 3-point baskets.

Not only did last Friday night’s game give the ’Cats some redemption from their loss against the Boxers earlier in the season, but it also kept a pulse going through their playoff hopes, guaranteeing a winning record for the season.

Linfield’s two games this weekend are all that’s left. In the team’s last meeting against PLU, the ’Cats defeated the Lutes, 89-78, in Ted Wilson Gymnasium.

Lewis & Clark was the preseason favorite to win the NWC title with the return of 2007 all-NWC senior guard Thomas Tillery, but the Pioneers have struggled with an 8-5 conference record. They have a one-game edge over Linfield and defeated the Wildcats 83-77 in their first meeting Jan. 26. However, Linfield has a strong home-court advantage, as they are undefeated at Ted Wilson Gym this season.

“Basketball is a rhythm game and being at home, you tend to shoot better,” Taylor said. “The major factor is the crowd and the energy the fans provide.”

Winning on the road is what the Wildcats must do to make that next step to the top of the conference. When traveling this season, Linfield has struggled to win.

“It’s a tale of two teams,” Murphy said. “When we’re on the road, we don’t shoot as well and don’t bring as much energy, which are two things you really need to do to be successful.”

    Both Taylor and Wiser have been a major impact in the turnaround of the team. Taylor’s senior experience provides leadership to the young squad; he also contributes 13.4 points per game, and leads the team in assists. Wiser is leading the team in points per game with a 14.2 average; rebounds, 6.7;and minutes played, 29.4.