If only every halftime adjustment worked this well.
Nursing a two-point lead at halftime, Whitworth’s defensive intensity picked up in the second half and overwhelmed visiting Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in an 81-63 victory in the first round of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament Thursday night.
The Pirates (23-5) now hit the road to face Northwest Conference champion Puget Sound in Tacoma at 7 p.m. Saturday. The winner of the teams’ fourth meeting this year will advance to the tournament’s Sweet 16.
“It’ll be a battle like it always is,” said Ross Nakamura, who led the Pirates with a game-high 22 points against CMS. “We know them, and they know us. The best team will win.”
Whitworth carried a 42-40 lead into halftime against the Stags, but that advantage swelled quickly in the second half. The Pirates swarmed CMS and forced the Stags into 1-for-13 shooting coming out of the locker room, turning the two-point lead into a 60-44 cushion with 111/2 minutes left.
CMS, which knocked down 15 of 25 shots in the first half, made only 7 of 27 shots after halftime.
“We locked ’em down,” said Pirates coach Jim Hayford, who celebrated his 200th victory with the win. “I thought their dribble penetration hurt us a bit in the first half, and that’s something we normally defend very well. So the adjustment was easy and natural, and we got back to our defensive principles.”
“At halftime all we talked about was making stops,” Nakamura said. “We wanted to focus on defense.”
With Clay Gebbers – a player Nakamura described as the team’s best on-ball defender – sitting out after suffering a concussion last Saturday, Hayford primarily went with a six-man rotation against the Stags. All five Pirates starters played at least 31 minutes, and reserve Tim Sellereit played 28.
CMS coach Ken Scalmanini said he prefers to play as many as 11 players a night, a tactic that usually helps his squad wear down opponents. But postseason games have eight media timeouts – four more than in the regular season – and Scalmanini and Hayford both said that worked in Whitworth’s favor.
“I knew we’d be a little short-handed, and the rest will do Clay well for Saturday night (against UPS),” Hayford said. “It’s a luxury as a coach that we’re deep enough that we can go into the NCAA playoffs and rest a guy like Clay.”
Nakamura has had games in which he’s scored more points and handed out more assists, but his decision making was near-perfect against CMS (21-7). The Pirate point guard’s midrange stroke was almost flawless – he buried 9 of 12 shots overall – and he turned the ball over only once in 39 minutes.
Nakamura also outshined CMS point guard Jason Toney, second on the Stags in scoring with 10.8 points a game. Toney finished with four points and three turnovers before fouling out with 2 minutes left.
“(Nakamura) is a great player,” Scalmanini said. “He comes off ball screens, he brings the ball up, he creates a lot of havoc with his dribble. I don’t want to say (Toney) got tired, but he had a lot of responsibilities.”
Nate Montgomery scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Whitworth, which had five players score in double figures. Sellereit and David Riley scored 13 and 12, respectively, and Bo Gregg added 10 points in his return to the starting lineup in Gebbers’ place.
Austin Soldner led CMS with 19 points.