They had it.
The Whitworth College Pirates basketball team was on the brink of shocking Bethel (Ind.) College, the NAIA Division II tournament defending champion and this season’s wire-to-wire top-ranked team.
What the Pirates didn’t have was Rico Swanson, the 1997 NAIA Division II player of the year. The 1997 NAIA Division II tournament Most Valuable Player. The Michael Jordan of the NAIAs.
With 2.2 seconds remaining in an NAIA Division II quarterfinal game Saturday at the Idaho Center, Swanson nailed a 3-point basket, vaulting the Pilots past the Pirates, 88-85. The final score was Bethel’s second - and biggest - lead as the Pilots scored the last 11 points in the game.
“It’s never over. It’s a 40-minute game. We said that from the beginning,” Whitworth coach Warren Friedrichs said. “We got an early lead but you’ve got to battle to the end.”
Whitworth led by as many as 15 points 29-14 - the result of 13-of-16 shooting (81.3 percent) during the opening 10 minutes. Freshman Ryan Nelson lit it up on 3 of 3 from 3-point range in a span of 90 seconds. Everything was going right for the well-prepared Pirates, whose inside muscle was more effective than Be thel’s height. They outrebounded the defending champs 40-28.
The Pirates held a 84-75 lead with 2:37 left in the game.
It was looking as though the team and its 200-plus fans’ stay in Idaho would be extended into next week had it not been for the smooth Swanson of South Bend, Ind., coupled with the Bucs’ 54.2 percent free-throw shooting (13 of 24).
Jeff Mix, a 67.8 percent free-throw shooter, converted 1 of 4 free throws, and Phil Ruebel, a 78.6 percent freethrow shooter, made 1 of 4 in the final 4:48. Bethel’s 6-foot-9 center Eric Brand fouled out at 4:48, but Bethel still felt a comeback coming.
Bethel (35-3) switched to a four-guard lineup and put on a full-court press - scoring once off a Swanson steal. They also took away Whitworth’s perimeter game, forcing the Pirates to drive into the paint - and take the foul.
“You see the lead is 8-9 points and we’re still playing pretty good ‘D,”’ Friedrichs said. “You see it slip away just because when you get fouled you don’t get anything out of it. It was just kind of an aberration.”
After Bethel tied the score at 85, Whitworth immediately threw a full-court pass which got the ball into the hands of Jeff Mix. Mix looked as though he was about to go in for an uncontested basket, but he slipped and the ball flew out of bounds.
“I don’t know what he hit but his foot just slipped out from under him. He catches that … there’s a lot of things that could have happened,” said Friedrichs about Mix, who muscled his way to a team-high 23 points and 13 rebounds in his final game.
Swanson, a 5-10 senior guard finished with a game-high 30 points and seven steals. With 31.5 seconds remaining, Bethel called timeout and set up the play for Swanson.
Whitworth’s Sean Weston, another senior, put up a desperation 3 in the last second. It hit the rim, but didn’t go through.
Swanson’s clutch 3, came one day after Greg Jones did the same for Whitworth in the second round. On Saturday, the long faces and red eyes belonged to the Bucs, who finished their season 20-8 and said goodbye to the NAIA Division II level. Whitworth and six other Northwest Conference schools join NCAA Division III next season.
Bethel will play Mount Marty (S.D.) College in Monday’s semifinal. The Lancers defeated Siena Heights (Mich.) College 74-69. In another quarterfinal, Oregon Tech defeated Lewis & Clark College 100-89.
Bethel 88, Whitworth 85
Bethel - Edison 2-5 0-0 5, Brand 6-7 15, Swanson 11-23 3-3 30, Ganger 0-0 0-0 0, William 0-1 0-0 0, Coolman 0-1 0-2 0, Hershberger 2-6 9-11 13, Hobson 0-3 0-0 0, Bales 5-12 0-0 11, Thomas 0-0 0-0 0, Welch 0-0 0-0 0, Watson 5-11 2-3 14. Totals 31-69 17-25 88.
Whitworth - Nakanis 2-3 0-0 4, Weston 1-4 1-2 3, Ramey 0-0 0-0 0, Ruebel 3-6 1-5 8, Jordan 3-7 0-0 7, Mix 9-11 5-9 23, Jones 3-4 0-2 6, Heimerman 3-4 4-4 10, Nelson 5-9 0-0 14, Schulz 4-6 0-0 8, Sullivan 0-0 0-0 0, McDaniel 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 33-54 13-24 85.
Halftime-Whitworth 53, Bethel 46. 3-point goals - Bethel 9-22 (Swanson 5-9, Edison 1-3, Bales 1-4, Watson 2-5, William 0-1), Whitworth 6-14 (Nelson 4-8, Jordan 1-1, Ruebel 1-3, Weston 0-2). Fouled out - Bethel, Brand. Rebounds - Bethel 31 (Swanson 7), Whitworth 40 (Mix 13). Assists - Bethel 12 (Swanson 4), Whitworth 20 (Jordan 5). Total fouls - Bethel 21, Whitworth 23.
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