PacWest Title Race Update: PLNU Men’s Basketball Within Reach of Third-Straight Championship

PLNU’s Zack Paulson playing in the Feb. 17 game against Hawaii Pacific University. Photo credit to Evan Albricht courtesy of PLNU SmugMug.

For the past two seasons, men’s basketball in the PacWest conference has run through the 92106. Sporting a 36-4 record in conference play from 2021-2023, the Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) Sea Lions have claimed the previous two regular season conference titles. 

However, their sustained dominance has been challenged throughout the 2023-2024 season. A challenging schedule, paired with multiple season-ending injuries to impact players has resulted in a 13-5 conference record — good for second in the PacWest as of Feb. 22. 

Although the Sea Lions are one of three teams to have already clinched a berth in the conference tournament — Academy of Art and Hawaii Pacific are the others — they have fallen a half-game behind first-place to Academy of Art in the PacWest standings. 

PLNU men’s basketball head coach Justin Downer said that the injuries this season have been like nothing he has ever experienced firsthand. 

“We have four players that are now done for the season, all of which would have All-Conference recognition had they played a full year,” Downer said. “From day one, we’ve talked about building something bigger than any one person in the locker room. Bigger than any player, and bigger than any coach, so that no matter what happened the standard of excellence proceeds.”

Guard and Seattle Pacific transfer Zack Paulsen echoed this sentiment, describing the season’s theme as “next man up.” 

“Having guys step up has been a part of our journey. We are going to continue to compete with the guys on the court and represent this university to the best of our ability,” Paulsen said. 

Despite season-ending injuries to players like Preseason First-Team All-PacWest forward Luke Haupt or second-year guard Jake Lifgren, the Sea Lions find themselves squarely in the race for a third-straight conference championship, with a multitude of overtime and down-to-the-wire games contributing to what Downer believes is a mentality of preparedness in the big moments.

“We’ve played in just about every end-of-game scenario you could possibly play in,” Downer said. “Down late, up late, back-and-forth, needing a stop, needing a basket and everything in between. Our guys don’t flinch in big moments, and in some ways, I think we’re most comfortable when our best is required.”

With two games left of the regular season (at Dominican on Feb. 29 and at Academy of Art on March 2) and the regular season conference title race heading toward a photo finish, a recent loss to the now first-place Academy of Art on Feb. 3 was less than ideal for the Sea Lions.

Paulsen said the beauty of this team, however, is that they don’t wait for a loss to motivate them. 

“We understand that the Academy of Art is a great team, but ultimately, we control our own destiny, and we are striving to get better and raise the bar every day, whether it’s a rest day, practice or game,” Paulsen said.

With the regular season title still within reach, PLNU will need to rattle off wins in each of its last two contests, including a rematch with Academy of Art in the season finale, a game which could ultimately decide the top dog for the 2023-2024 PacWest regular season. 

“We have a confident group of players who are focused on getting better one day at a time,” Paulsen said. “We understand the importance of this coming road trip but are enjoying the work. Vibes are always good when we’re working on getting better each day.”