by Korey Hope
The Whitworth men’s basketball team won the Northwest Conference tournament championship last weekend, defeating Lewis & Clark 74-69 on Thursday in the semifinal and Whitman 93-72 on Saturday in the final. It’s the seventh consecutive tournament championship for the Bucs and their ninth in the last 14 NWC tournaments.
The Pirates clinched a NCAA Division III Tournament berth with their victory. It will be their seventh straight appearance and their eighth all-time.
“It’s a great feeling,” senior guard Wade Gebbers said. “Going to the tournament four years in a row is an awesome feeling for the other seniors and myself, but it never gets old. And every year it’s with a different team, so it’s just as special.”
After losing the season opener to the current No. 1 ranked team in the nation, St. Thomas, Whitworth won 20 straight games and was ranked as high as third at the national level. Despite losing two of their last four regular season games, the Pirates were the favorite heading into the conference tournament.
The Buc’s first matchup was against Lewis & Clark last Thursday in the Whitworth Fieldhouse. The Bucs gained an early lead and found themselves up by 12 points only eight minutes into the game. But the Pioneers weren’t going to go away quietly, and fought back to take the lead with six minutes left in the game. Senior guard Dexter Pearce led the comeback for Lewis & Clark with 19 points and six rebounds, and was five of nine from beyond the arc. Gebbers countered with 22 points and six 3-pointers, which included scoring 11 straight points for the Bucs in the second half, and Whitworth hung on for a 74-69 victory.
“I’ve been working on my shot throughout the week, and once you knock a couple down then you get the confidence to keep going,” Gebbers said.
Freshman forward George Valle also had a strong game, shooting 60 percent from the floor with 16 points, three rebounds, an assist and a block. Valle averages 12.3 points per game this season, making him the second highest scoring freshman in the NWC.
Junior guards Dustin McConnell and Colton McCargar also reached double-digits in scoring on the night, with 13 and 14 points, respectively. McConnell also added seven rebounds, six assists and a steal.
The Whitman Missionaries beat George Fox University 90-78 at home in the other NWC semifinal, setting up a “Battle of the Whits,” as it was commonly referred, in the Whitworth Fieldhouse Saturday. Whitman and George Fox both beat the Pirates in the regular season, and Whitman took the Bucs to overtime in both matchups during the year. Because of that, many anticipated a closely contested game to decide the NWC tournament champions.
The Pirates had other ideas. After controlling the tip, McConnell found senior forward Mack Larkin in 3-point range and Larkin drained it.
A few minutes later, sophomore center Taylor Farnsworth restored Whitworth’s early lead with a pair of free throws, and the Bucs never looked back. Sixteen first-half points from Larkin, as well as Gebbers making all four of his 3-point attempts, helped the Pirates build a 21-point lead at the break. McCargar was also in double-digits by halftime, with 10 points and four rebounds in only 15 minutes off the bench.
The Bucs relied on quick and accurate ball movement throughout the game to counter Whitman’s heavy defensive pressure. Early in the first half, the Pioneers moved into a full-court press and forced two turnovers from the Pirates. But Whitworth settled down and didn’t turn the ball over again until they had a 15-point lead late in the first half. Because of their high-pressure defense, Whitman forced an average of 22.3 turnovers per game heading into this championship matchup. Whitworth only turned the ball over eight times compared to Whitman’s 11. The Pirates also stacked the assists column with their ball movement, racking up 16 by halftime, which bettered their season average for an entire game by three.
“We spend the week preparing for Whitman’s pressure since we didn’t handle it very well last time,” McCargar said. “And we were able to break their press and keep our composure throughout the entire night.”
Poor shooting from the Missionaries also assisted the Pirates. Whitman shot 27.6 percent from the field in the first half and only 38.2 percent for the game. They also did not make a 3-pointer until there were 10 seconds left in the game, and went one for 15 from downtown on the night (6.7 percent).
The second half was much of the same story for both teams. Despite attempting only six 3-pointers and making none of them in the second half, the Bucs still maintained a lead of at least 19 points throughout. They scored 32 of their 40 second-half points in the paint that included the final two at the buzzer, courtesy of a two-handed dunk from freshman forward Brandon Loiler to cap the championship for the Pirates, much to the excitement of the Whitworth students.
Larkin led the Pirates with a career-high 22 points, five rebounds, three blocks and two assists. Gebbers added 16 points, bringing his NWC Tournament total to 38 in just two games. McCargar also had another solid night with 15 points, seven rebounds and a pair of assists in 30 minutes off the bench.
“We’re playing our best ball right now all around,” McCargar said. “And there’s no better time to be doing that than when it matters the most.”
Despite a large margin of victory, nearly all of the 1,765 people in the Fieldhouse (which has a maximum capacity of 1,650) stayed through the end of the game to watch the trophy ceremony and the Pirate squad and coaching staff do the traditional cutting of the nets.
The next step for the Pirates is the NCAA Division III tournament.
The field for the tournament was announced on Monday at 9:30 a.m., check whitworthpirates.com to see when and where the Bucs will play in their opening round game.
Contact Korey Hope at email@example.com