Whitworth could have backed into a Northwest Conference championship Friday night.
Instead, the Pirates gutted out one of their most rewarding victories of the season and put a stamp on their third title in four years.
Nate Montgomery overcame early foul trouble and powered eighth-ranked Whitworth in the waning minutes of a hard-fought 82-71 victory over NWC rival Puget Sound at the Whitworth Fieldhouse.
The Pirates (20-2, 13-0 NWC) clinched the league title with their come-from-behind victory, the fourth NWC championship in coach Jim Hayford’s 9 seasons at the school.
Whitworth entered the game assured of at least a split of the conference title and ultimately didn’t need to win to finish first after Pacific cruised to a victory over second-place Linfield on Friday. The Pirates played like a team interested in creating its own destiny, however, fighting back from an 11-point deficit against UPS (8-14, 4-9).
Montgomery admitted it was gratifying to cement a conference championship with a win against UPS, which went undefeated in conference play last year — the first NWC team ever to do so.
“Last year they cut down the nets in front of us,” said Montgomery, who scored eight of his game-high 23 points in the final 3 1/2 minutes. “It makes it more special.”
Bryce Levin gave the Loggers a 47-39 lead with a 3-pointer just over 3 minutes into the second half. Bo Gregg hit 3-pointers on consecutive trips down the floor for Whitworth, however, and ignited a 17-2 spurt that reversed the game. Wade Gebbers tied the game at 47-47 with a pair of free throws, and Montgomery scored on the Pirates’ next possession to take a two-point lead.
Clay Gebbers, who contributed with 14 points, made two free throws to cap the run and gave Whitworth a 56-49 lead with 10 minutes left.
“We’re not used to being down, but at the same time I knew someone would step up,” Whitworth guard Eric Beal said.
UPS closed within 64-63 on Kaleb Shelton’s two free throws with 4 minutes left, but the Pirates made 16 of 20 free-throw attempts down the stretch to seal the win.
Whitworth made 30 of 37 free throws overall, including 20 of 25 in the second half. That helped the Pirates overcome a five-point deficit at intermission.
Logger guard Colin Koach knocked down a 3-pointer with 7:23 left in the first half to give Puget Sound a 32-21 edge, the first time Whitworth had trailed by double digits since a loss in the team’s season opener.
Montgomery had been on the bench for 3 minutes after picking up his second foul. Hayford, who called a timeout after Koach’s bucket, didn’t hesitate sending Montgomery back to the scorer’s table to check in.
“You’d prefer not to play a great player with two fouls” in the first half, Hayford said. “At the same time, if the game gets away from you, it’s like, ‘Why’d you rest him?’ It was a critical point in the game.”
Whitworth scored eight of the next 10 points to claw back into contention, but the Loggers retained a 39-34 advantage at halftime. Gregg scored 14 of his 22 points in the first half to help keep the Pirates afloat with Montgomery saddled with two fouls.
UPS made 6 of 14 3-point attempts and shot 50 percent from the floor (14 of 28) in the first 20 minutes. The Loggers’ bench also outscored Whitworth’s reserves 13-3 in the half.
Levin made six 3-pointers en route to 18 points for UPS. Koach added 14 points.