Written by Mark Colachico, Athletics Communications Writer
SALEM, Ore. - A 9-2 run to start the second half and a 7-0 run midway through the final stanza helped lead Willamette University to a come-from-behind victory over Portland Bible College, 79-74, in the Bearcats' final non-conference game of the season Friday evening inside Cone Field House.
With the win, Willamette improves to 2-9 on the season. Portland Bible remains winless this year, falling to 0-15.
Hayden Russell (Jr., W, Woodland, CA/Da Vinci Charter Academy) led the Bearcats with a career-high 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field that included 3-of-8 from beyond the three-point line and 6-of-7 at the free throw line. Russell has scored in double figures in four straight games, as the senior wingman is averaging 16.0 points per game over that stretch.
Along with Russell, Johnny Verduin (Sr./So., F, Seattle, WA/Ballard HS) also scored in double figures with 18 points on 7-for-16 shooting from the field. Nico Troplent (Jr., W, Los Angeles, CA/Cathedral HS) grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds to lead Willamette in boards for the second straight game, as the junior is averaging over 10 rebounds per game in the Bearcats' last three contests.
Casey Thornton (Jr., F, Santa Rosa, CA/Maria Carrillo HS) chippped in with seven points, CJ Walker (So., P, Placentia, CA/Mayfair HS) added six pionts, and two other Bearcats - Trent Callan (So., G, Portland, OR/Lincoln HS) and Jared Baumgartner (Sr., W, Albany, OR/Crescent Valley HS) - each scored five points. Callan also led all players with a game-high seven assists, while Thornton registered a team-high two steals.
Portland Bible was led offensively by Trey Merriweather with a game-high 30 points on 12-for-21 shooting from the field to go along with a team-high six rebounds. Three other Wildcats - Devonte Luckett, Michael Acosta, and Dalton Rausch - also scored in double figures with 15, 11, and 10 points, respectively. Javon Lue led Portland Bible with a team-best five assists, while teaming with Merriweather to record a game-high three steals each.
The visiting Wildcats opened the game by scoring the first six points, as Portland Bible built a quick lead in the opening two-plus minutes before Willamette got on the board thanks to a three-pointer by Russell at the 17:20 mark. Portland Bible extended its lead to seven points at 10-3 on a jumper by Salem-native Isaac Astorga with just over 16 minutes left in the first half. The Wildcats pushed their lead to as much as nine points, 27-18, on a lay-in by Merriweather at the 6:49 mark.
Over the next three-plus minutes, Willamette used a 13-2 run to secure its largest lead of the first half, 31-28, on a lay-in by Dylan Critchfield (Jr., P, Broomfield, CO/Standley Lake HS) with just over two minutes left.
Portland Bible would not go quietly into the night, as the Wildcats scored the final nine points of the first half en route to securing a 37-31 lead at intermission on back-to-back free throws by Merriweather.
The second half began with Willamette using a quick 9-2 run over the opening two minutes on its way to grabbing a 40-39 lead on another three-pointer by Russell. Unfortunately, the Bearcats were unable to shake the pesky Wildcats, as Willamette could not pull in front by more than four points over the next eight minutes.
Portland Bible's final lead came on a jumper by Merriweather with 10:22 left in the game, as the Wildcats held a slim advantage, 54-53.
Following Merriweather's bucket, the Bearcats used a 7-0 run over a span of two minutes to pull ahead by six points, 60-54, on a free throw by Thornton with 8:22 on the clock. Portland Bible got back within one point at 68-67 nearly six minutes later when Acosta knocked down a three-pointer with 2:38 remaining. The Wildcats could not get any closer.
A quick 4-0 run by Willamette that included Russell's third and final three-pointer of the night, along with a free throw by Baumgartner, increased the Bearcats' lead to five points, 72-67, with 1:45 to go.
After a lay-in by Portland Bible's Rausch with 24 seconds left, Willamette attempted to call a timeout but instead got a fast break dunk for Thornton after the officials did not hear the Bearcats' request.
Over the final 20 seconds, Willamette used timely defense and good free throw shooting to secure the victory. Portland Bible's Merriweather hit a buzzer-beating jumper from just inside the arch for the final margin of five points, 79-74.
As a team, Willamette shot a combined 28-for-68 (41.2%) from the field that included 50.0% (16-for-32) in the second half. The Bearcats were also 4-of-21 (19.0%) from beyond the three-point line and 19-for-30 (63.3%) at the free throw line. On the other hand, Portland Bible was a combined 30-for-75 (40.0%) from the field, 3-of-18 (16.7%) from long distance, and 11-of-18 (61.1%) at the charity stripe.
Willamette will return to action when the Bearcats kick off 2017 with a pair of Northwest Conference games beginning on Friday, January 6, when they travel north to take on the University of Puget Sound beginning at 8:00 p.m. (PST) in Tacoma, Washington.