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COLLEGE FOCUS: Nicholas focused on strong finish as Senior Day approaches

University of Portland senior forward Ryan Nicholas would like to treat Saturday’s home game against Pepperdine as If it were just another game.

But because of the emotion attached to playing his final West Coast Conference home game in the Chiles Center, he knows it isn't.

All Nicholas wants to talk about is how the Pilots (14-11, 6-7 WCC) are in sixth place in the league standings and can gain significant ground on conference leaders with five games remaining in the regular season, beginning with Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against the Waves (14-12, 7-7) at the Chiles Center.

But for Nicholas and the Pilots’ three other seniors — John Bailey, Tanner Riley and Korey Thieleke -- Saturday’s game is about more than jockeying for seeding position heading into the March 6-11 league tournament in Las Vegas.NICHOLAS

“This day was going to come, one way or the other,” said Nicholas, the 6-7, 245-pound power forward from Spokane, Wash. “It’s going to be special and it’s cool. Very cool. But for four years, I’ve wanted to win a conference championship, and that’s always been more important than any Senior Day celebration.

“We need to stay in the top six, we need to keep improving, maybe climb into the top four … let’s see where we can get with the games we have remaining. I think they’re all winnable games, and it has to start at home. That’s really where my focus is. I’m not focusing on Senior Day.”

What Nicholas has accomplished in four seasons has been impressive, going from a freshman who played in the shadow of Luke Sikma to the team leader in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and as a junior. Coming off Thursday’s 71-64 victory over Loyola Marymount, Nicholas is tied with Thomas van der Mars for second in team scoring (12.6 points per game) behind Kevin Bailey, and he not only leads the team in rebounding (9.2), but also leads the WCC.

And regardless of how the regular season plays out, Nicholas has already solidified his place among the school’s all-time leaders in three categories, currently ranked No. 17 in scoring with 1,155 career points (112 points shy of cracking the top 10), No. 5 in rebounding with 789 career boards and No. 5 in career double-doubles with 23.

“That makes me proud,” Nicholas said. “Although my ultimate goal is to win that championship, when people point out the individual accomplishments, I can’t help but think about how hard I’ve worked to put myself in a position to do those things. I look back even to high school and those were dog days too, working hard to try to get to this point.

“Every year, I’ve tried to work harder and harder, and it makes me proud that I’ve been able to accomplish some things.”

Is this the player UP coach Eric Reveno envisioned when the Pilots recruited him out of Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep?

“We knew that he was going to play really hard,” Reveno said. “His skill set and his work ethic have allowed him to grow into a special player. His leadership and everything else off the court has just been fantastic.

“You think about his big games — going for 15 points and 15 rebounds at Gonzaga earlier this season, his 23 career double-doubles, and his 19 rebounds against UNLV last season still stands out as one of the single-greatest performances of anyone that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”