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ON COLLEGE HOOPS/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/For Portland women, basketball success is a work in progress

COURTESY: SCOTT LARSON - Courtney West and the Portland State women's basketball team have aspirations of success in the Big Sky Conference this season.While the state's Pac-12 women's basketball programs are highly ranked, the two Division I programs in Portland are hoping some young players will help them make some noise of their own.

The Portland State Vikings and the Portland Pilots have dealt with injuries early this season, though.

Until a Saturday game at Gonzaga got away from them, the Vikings had managed to be competitive despite the absence of 6-2 guard Ashley Bolston. The top returning scorer for PSU (15.8 points per game), Bolston had hip surgery this summer. She has been practicing and could soon see her first action of the season.

Last season, Bolston was recognized as the top newcomer in the Big Sky and was second-team all-conference as the Vikings advanced to the semifinals.

This year's Vikings are younger, but with Bolston and fellow juniors Sidney Rielly and Courtney West back to lead the way, they hope to improve on last season's 16-17 record.

Bolston's absence has put more of the focus on Rielly, who averaged 15.7 points as a sophomore. The 6-0 Rielly is at 19.5 through the first eight games this season.

"Having a player like Ashley Bolston on the court, she draws a lot of attention. So when she's not there it's win by committee, which I think we've been doing a good job of," Rielly says.

Two newcomers also have played significant minutes. Kiana Brown, a redshirt junior who sat out last season after transferring from Humboldt State, is averaging 14 points per game. And freshman point guard Kylie Jimenez, a Colorado all-state high school guard last season, is averaging 11 points, 3.6 assists and 1.6 turnovers.

The 6-4 West set a PSU record for blocked shots (94) last season while averaging more than 10 points per game and posting six double-doubles. In a Nov. 28 win this year at Portland, West had 13 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots but played only 20 minutes because of foul trouble.

With 6-3 junior Pia Jurhar, 6-0 freshman Savannah Dhaliwal, 6-0 sophomore Tatiana Streun and 5-10 junior guard Corey James, the Vikings have some size and lineup flexibility.

Third-year coach Lynn Kennedy likes his team and calls winning a game in the conference tournament last season an important step forward. But he notes that the program is a work in progress.

"I think we've got the pieces in place, once we get Ashley back and once we get our freshmen to step up," he said after the 77-71 victory at Portland. "It's an exciting team to watch. You've got shooters, you've got people who can drive, you've got tall players that can run the floor. When we play well, it's kind of fun."

The Vikings might be a year away from something special — they will have a new home arena and several key seniors next season. They were picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky in the coaches' poll and eighth in the media poll (with a first-place vote from the media).

West says losing in the 2017 Big Sky semifinals "just made us hungrier and wanting to get after it in the offseason: Doing the small things, the individual work, keeping fit and working together. I think those things have allowed us to form the connection we have now on the court."

Eight of PSU's 16 wins last season came at home. This season, their home games will be at Lewis & Clark while construction of the Viking Pavilion is completed. Seven of their first eight games have been on the road.

For the most part, the Vikings have handled early challenges. Their losses at UNLV (in overtime), at Nevada and at UC Davis were close.

• Like PSU, the Pilots are trying to find their footing with young players. Eight of the 14 players, including six freshmen, are underclassmen The Pilots return two starters and seven letter winners from a team that went 6-24 last season.

The returning starters are 6-2 junior forward Julie Spencer and 6-1 senior Ashley Gray.

Spencer led the Pilots in rebounds (7.5) and shooting percentage (42.8) as a sophomore and was second on the team in scoring (9.5). She can score from inside and outside. She is averaging 13.2 points and 7.5 rebounds this season.

Kate Andersen, a sophomore guard out of Jesuit High, is averaging nine points per game after averaging 3.9 as a freshman.

The freshman class includes guards Maddie Muhlheim from Sunset High and Josie Matz from Tacoma, Washington. Another newcomer is junior Lisa-Marie Kaempf, a 6-2 forward who played two seasons at Midland, a nationally ranked junior college program. She is averaging 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds.

Picked to finish last in the 10-team West Coast Conference, this is a building season for the Pilots.

"We're pretty excited about the talent level of our freshman," fourth-year coach Cheryl Sorenson says.

She says her young team is learning from each game, including the home-floor loss to Portland State.

"They fight and play hard," Sorenson says. "To lose to your crosstown rival doesn't feel good. But I know it's a process, and we've just got to keep preaching that. You can't get too high or too low."

The game against PSU was a challenge because several players, including junior guard Darian Slaga, were returning from injury. Also, teams in the WCC play man-to-man defense. Portland State played an active zone, and the Pilots didn't shoot well from 3-point range.

"Were just going to learn and learn and learn and grow," Sorenson said. "We're going to keep making mistakes, but I like that we play hard. If we can make mistakes and play hard, we will learn."

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