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COLLEGE HOOPS: Ryan Nicholas provides typical toughness in Pilots victory

(portlandpilots.com)

The Portland Pilots list Ryan Nicholas at 6-7 and 245 pounds.

By some Division I basketball standards, that’s small for a power forward, but in the West Coast Conference, Nicholas is as big and as rugged and as determined and as skilled as they come.

He has a bit of a nasty streak, too. That is to say he’s not afraid to stick his nose into places where it could get bent.

On Thursday night, Nicholas took over the Portland-Pacific game with just under six minutes to play and made a series of key plays at both ends of the court that carried the Pilots to a 72-64 victory over the Tigers before a crowd of 1,173 at the Chiles Center.

Maybe “took over” is bit strong, because Nicholas had plenty of help. Thomas van der Mars was a force with 18 points, 13 rebounds and a couple blocked shots, and Bryce Pressley posted his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

But after the Tigers had cut a 14-point deficit to two, 53-51, and the Pilots needed someone to take charge, Nicholas came through with one big play after another.NICHOLAS

First, Pacific’s T.J. Wallace missed a 3-point shot that would have given the Tigers the lead, Nicholas grabbed the rebound and got fouled. He made both free throws, extending Portland’s lead to 55-51 with 5:38 to play.

Next, Trevin Harris missed a trey for the Tigers and Nicholas again got the rebound, got fouled, and made both free throws to make it 57-51 with five minutes to play.

After another Nicholas defensive rebound and an exchange of baskets, Nicholas broke the Pacific backcourt press with a long pass to a wide open van der Mars under the basket for an easy layup that pushed the lead to 61-53 with 3:14 remaining.

At that point, order had been restored for the PIlots, who put the game away by making 7 of 10 free throws in the closing 1:23.

“I think we knew if we kept playing tough, kept rebounding the ball, and played defense, the averages would turn in our favor,” Nicholas said. “Overall, we played, I thought, pretty good defense. And I think as long as we continue that, make toughness and rebounding a big deal for us, we can win a lot of games like that.”

Nicholas finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds — his second consecutive double-double and team-leading sixth of the season — along with three assists and three blocked shots. And while some of the plays he made came down to him being in the right place and the right time, most of the plays he made during crunch time had to do with him being 6-7, 245, with a nasty streak.

“With Ryan, you don’t have to question his toughness,” Pilots coach Eric Reveno said. “Rebounding was tough, because both teams were just going for it. If you pushed a guy blatantly, they called it. But two guys banging each other … it’s hard to call. We needed Ryan to come up with those rebounds.”

The Pilots ended up with a 52-37 advantage in rebounds, and almost everyone who stepped on the floor contributed, including junior wing Kevin Bailey with five and freshman point guard Alec Wintering with four.

More important, the Pilots won the game.

After losing twice at home last week, first to San Francisco in overtime and then to Santa Clara, the Pilots (9-6, 1-2 WCC) needed something to lift their spirits.

Thursday’s win over the Tigers (9-4, 0-2) seemed to do the trick.

“It’s big,” Reveno said. “It’s bigger than I want it to be, but it’s a tough sell job to keep telling everyone you’re a good basketball team when you’re losing. We don’t have a lot of guys in the locker room right now with a tremendous amount of swagger and who understand what winning feels like. That’s just reality.

“We’re a good basketball team, but like I’ve said before, as a coach, I’ve got to put them in position to be successful.”

Thursday was a step in the right direction.

“That win was a really big, especially mentally,” Nicholas said. “I’m not convinced any of us in the locker room were freaking out about the 0-2. We wish we would have won those games, but in reality, the last four games we were 2-2, counting two good wins (over Bradley and Princeton) in Las Vegas.

“A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on those first two conference games, and for good reason. But we know that we had a chance to win both of them. And we knew that we were a good enough team to win this one tonight.”