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'Intense' L&C aims to keep ball rolling

One of the biggest games of the season in women’s small-college basketball takes place Monday night in Portland. Not that a lot of the home team’s fans will be able to see it.

The undefeated and sixth-ranked Lewis & Clark Pioneers will play host to 2012 NCAA

Division III runner-up George Fox at 7 p.m. New Year’s Eve at Pamplin Sports Center.

It’s a key Northwest Conference game, and one of two regular-season match-ups between the teams, who met four times a year ago (game three was for the conference title, game four was in the national playoffs).

George Fox went 32-1 last season. Lewis & Clark was 29-4 — with all four losses to the Bruins — and ended the year ranked No. 9.

This year, the Pioneers are 10-0 and the Bruins 8-2. George Fox lost its first two games, both before second-team All-American center Hannah Munger returned from offseason knee surgery (she was hurt early in the 2012 national title game).

“Both of us easily have the ability to compete with anybody in the country,” L&C coach Juli Fulks says. “I’m sure both teams are motivated for (Monday’s) game.”

Students at Lewis & Clark, however, are scattered. Finals concluded Dec. 19, and the student body doesn’t return until mid-January.

“It’s not ideal at all,” Fulks says. “But staff and faculty wil be very present. On our campus, this game is being talked about everywhere. We’ve never had a small crowd for that game.”

George Fox has been one of the nation’s top D-III teams for years. Lewis & Clark has been competitive, and continues to come on strong in Fulks’ ninth season at Palatine Hill.

And a change in approach has made the Pioneers even more formidable this season. Fulks describes it as a commitment to playing “intense basketball.” That means start-to-finish full-court pressure and transition offense. A main goal is to create more possessions.

“Our shooting percentage is lower, but we’re getting more shots and more chances for offensive rebounds and not turning the ball over as much,” Fulks says. “We’re not slowing it down and thinking through every play. We let the players go, with some structure. We find stretches where we can force three or four mistakes and go on 10- to 12-point bursts.”

Partly because she has young post players, Fulks has been “basically starting five guards.” All of them can get to the basket. “We’re attacking the rim,” Fulks says. “We essentially find a mismatch to get to the rim or draw a help rotation to get a 3-point shot.”

The top gun is 5-9 senior Kristina Williams, a two-time all-NWC player. She is the only L&C player averaging in double figures this season (21.0 points per game).

Williams also is averaging a team-high 27.0 minutes. Others in the main mix are 5-9 junior Tyler Wang (26.0), 5-7 junior Kat Howe (25.4), 5-6 senior Sara Villanueva and 5-7 junior Katie Anderson (21.7).

Fulks typically uses nine players (one other potential contributor, 5-10 senior forward Daron Dean from Brush Prairie, Wash., is out for the year with a torn ACL).

George Fox has won six consecutive league titles (L&C shared the crown in 2011). The Bruins have been to the Elite Eight four times in a row and won the national title in 2009. They are ranked 21st and 22nd in the two national polls, last released on Dec. 18.

The 6-5 Munger, from Newberg High, is the focus for a team that includes former Franklin High guard Sam McCloud, a junior who came from Clackamas Community College.

“They really play through their post,” Fulks says, adding, “both teams are so different from last year. They lost a lot of their guard play, and we lost a lot of our post play.”

All the Pios’ practice gear has this motto on it: “Work. Earn. Take.”

“The idea is we don’t want anything handed to us,” Fulks says. “If we can’t go outwork somebody and earn it, then we didn’t deserve it.”

Happy birthday

Dec. 30, 1941 — Mel Renfro, former Jefferson High, University of Oregon star in football and track and field, and NFL Hall of Famer from the Dallas Cowboys (age 71)

Jan. 2, 1944 — Ed Manning, a member of the first Trail Blazers team in 1970-71. The former Jackson State forward averaged 7.1 points per game. Father of former NBA star Danny Manning. Died March 4, 2011.

Dec. 31, 1950 — Bob Gilder, pro golfer from Corvallis (age 62)

Jan. 1, 1964 — Kevin Duckworth, Blazers center from 1986-93. Averaged 13.6 points in 527 games with Portland. Died Aug. 25, 2008.

Dec. 31, 1971 — Brent Barry, former NBA guard from Oregon State (age 41)

Oregon sports history

Dec. 28, 1996 — The Far West Classic men’s basketball tournament, which began in 1956, ends its run in Portland with Oregon topping Oregon State 66-64 before a Rose Garden crowd of 13,415 that braved a snowstorm to see the ‘96 championship game. Tourney MVP Kenya Wilkins sinks the game-winning short jumper with 4.8 seconds left.

Dec. 30, 2002 — The WNBA Portland Fire folds after three seasons.

Jan. 1, 2002 — Joey Harrington and the No. 2-ranked Oregon Ducks roll over third-ranked Colorado 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. Harrington throws for four touchdowns and 350 yards, and Steve Smith intercepts three passes.

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Twitter: @sbrandonsports