Bearcats Prepare for Return Trip to Puget Sound

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- Willamette University will battle the University of Puget Sound in the Northwest Conference Semifinal in men's basketball on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. (PST), in Tacoma, Wash. It will be WU's second trip to Tacoma in six days to take on the Loggers. In the regular season finale on Saturday, Feb. 23, the teams play two halves and two overtime periods before Puget Sound edged the Bearcats, 127-121, to finish second in the NWC.

Only four open days were scheduled between the double-overtime game and the NWC Semifinal. Four days for the teams to practice offensive and defensive drills. Four days to adjust their game plans and focus on one opposing team. Four days to switch from intense regular season game to a playoff encounter that will move the winner to within a single game of the NCAA Division III National Tournament.

And, with only three of the nine squads in the NWC still playing, Thursday's game is a special event to be savored by both teams. The 2007-08 NWC regular season featured balanced play, numerous close games decided in the final minute or in overtime and exceptional plays by talented athletes throughout the conference. For Willamette and UPS, the NWC Semifinal match-up is a reward for all of their tremendous efforts throughout a challenging season.

Tickets for Thursday's game are priced at $7 for adults, $4 for senior citizens and youngsters up to 12 years of age. Willamette and UPS students will be admitted free with a current college identification card. WU received a big boost from its fans at UPS on Saturday and the Bearcats anticipate another vocal following from Willamette during the semifinal game. The game will be webcast by Mike Allegre, starting at 6:45 p.m. (PST).

Willamette is one of the surprise teams in the conference this year. The Bearcats were picked to finish sixth in the NWC Preseason Poll, but ended the regular season in a three-way tie for third after almost defeating UPS to tie for second place. Willamette was 9-7 in the NWC and 11-14 overall, despite starting the season with a 2-7 record.

The Bearcats swept a pair of games from preseason favorite Lewis & Clark College and won back-to-back road games at Whitman College and Whitworth University. WU was 6-2 at home in conference play.

Although Willamette featured solid team play and a hard-working group of players on defense, the Bearcats also featured several players who elevated their games to a quality level.

Senior wing Mike Smith (Talent, OR/Phoenix HS) led the NWC in 3-point shooting, as he connected on 47.2% of his long-range shots (59 of 125). He was fifth in the NWC in free throw percentage at 82.9% (87 of 105). Smith averaged 16.2 points per game and reached double figures 20 times, including a career-high 29 at UPS. He was chosen Second Team All-NWC.

Smith was joined by junior post Kyler McClary (Hillsboro, OR/Glencoe HS) as a Second Team All-NWC selection. McClary top WU's offensive chart with 17.3 points per game. He provided the 'Cats with double-digit scoring 24 times, including the final 22 games of the regular season. He grabbed 5.7 rebounds per game and shot 50.3% from the field (165 of 328). He ranked fifth in the conference in scoring.

Willamette's third-leading scorer and rebounder was Cameron Mitchell (So., Post, Portland, OR/Grant HS/U. of Redlands), who tallied 11.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He averaged just 19.7 minutes played, yet he ranked third in the NWC in rebounding and was second in field goal percentage at 59.6% (112 of 188).

Mitchell scored a career-high 36 points and grabbed 14 boards in WU's game at Puget Sound. During the season, he registered eight double-doubles. Against UPS on Saturday, he hit 10 of 11 free throws, including 6 of 6 during the two overtime periods.

Corey Costantino (Jr., Wing, Ashland, OR/Ashland HS) may have made the greatest improvement on the team. He averaged 5.4 points and 17.0 minutes played as a sophomore in 2006-07. This year, he contributed 9.8 points per contest, while playing 25.1 minutes per game and providing 2.2 assists per game. He produced double-digit scoring 14 times, including 10 times in the NWC.

Costantino made a huge impact in several WU victories. On Feb. 9, he scored 16 points and hit 8 of 10 free throws in an 80-71 win over Pacific Lutheran University. One day later, he scored 18 points and provided the game-winning assist just before the buzzer in an 82-81 triumph over Linfield College. He sank four free throws in the final nine seconds in WU's 82-77 win against Lewis & Clark on Feb. 16.

The Bearcats also received tremendous efforts from the rest of the Willamette roster. Freshman point guard Robbie Kunke (Clackamas, OR/Clackamas HS) started all 25 games and averaged 5.4 assists per game. He scored the winning layup against Linfield and scored 5.7 points per game. Tain Cantrell (Jr., Post, Beaverton, OR/Westview HS) brought down 4.9 rebounds per game and averaged 4.8 points per contest.

Cantrell and Simon Currie (Jr., Wing/Post, Bend, OR/Mountain View HS) provided solid defense throughout the year. Ian Mansfield (Sr., Post, Hillsboro, OR/Century HS) missed eight games, but scored 23 points against Whitman on Jan. 4 and hauled down 12 rebounds against the College of Idaho in the season opener.

Ricky Thompson (Fr., PG, Temecula, CA/Temecula Valley HS) increased his playing time as the season progressed. He sank a 40-foot three-pointer at the end of the first half against Lewis & Clark on Feb. 16, creating momentum that led to the Bearcats' second victory over the Pioneers this season.

Puget Sound was expected to have an outstanding season. The Loggers were picked to finish second in the NWC and matched that prediction with an 11-5 conference record. UPS concluded the regular season with an 18-6 record.

Jason Foster (Jr., F) led the Loggers with 18.7 points per game. He also provided UPS with 5.7 rebounds per game and shot 58.6% from the field (164 of 280). He ranked fourth in the NWC in both scoring and field goal percentage. Foster was 105 of 137 at the free throw line (76.6%).

Antwan Williams (Jr., G) earned 17.3 points per game,while connecting on 42 of 103 three-pointers (40.8%) and 89 of 110 free throws (80.0%). He averaged 5.7 assists per game. Foster and Williams were chosen First Team All-NWC.

The Loggers also received 14.7 points per game from Robert Krauel (Jr., F) and 11.8 points per game from Taylor Marsh (Sr., G). Krauel matched Foster at 58.6% on field goal shooting (133 of 227) and averaged 6.0 rebounds per game. Marsh led the team with 64 three-point baskets, including 6-for-10 three-point shooting against the Bearcats on Saturday, when he led UPS with 24 points.

Whitworth University, which claimed the NWC regular season title with a 12-4 record, will host the NWC Championship game on Saturday, March 1. The Pirates enter the postseason with a 19-6 overall record.

Whitworth swept UPS in two games, but split a pair of contests with the Bearcats. Whitworth downed Willamette, 72-65 in overtime, in Salem, Ore., on Jan. 5. The 'Cats won at Whitworth, 82-74, on Feb. 2.

The top scorer for Whitworth during the regular season was Ryan Symes (Sr., F), who averaged 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He ranked second in the NWC in free throw percentage at 85.4% (152 of 178) and was third in the conference scoring race. Symes was chosen NWC Player of the Year.

Colin Willemsen (Sr., F) provided the Pirates with 13.9 points per game. He ranked second in the NWC with 7.9 rebounds per contest. He shot 52.0% from the field (115 of 221) and converted 77.9% of his free throws (109 of 140). Willemsen and Symes were First Team All-NWC selections.

Mike Allegre interviews Cameron Mitchell. Allegre will webcast the playoff game at UPS, starting at 6:45 p.m. on Feb. 28.

Mike Allegre interviews Cameron Mitchell. Allegre will webcast the playoff game at UPS, starting at 6:45 p.m. on Feb. 28.