It’s was a basket so ugly the officials needed to check a courtside television monitor to see if it was even legal.
But what Eric Beal’s 3-pointer from just beyond the top of key lacked in style points on Friday night, it more than made up for in substance by fueling a late-game surge that carried Whitworth University to a 101-83 Northwest Conference win over upset-minded Willamette at Whitworth Fieldhouse.
“That’s kind of when it turned,” Pirates coach Jim Hayford said of Beal’s shot that bounded high off the back of the rim and back through the net after narrowly missing the shot clock on its way down. “When we finally did get the lead there, there was a big emotional swing – maybe even more so for them than for us.”
After reviewing several replays of the controversial basket, which gave the 15th-ranked Pirates (16-2 overall, 9-0 in the NWC) a 75-73 lead with just over eight minutes remaining, officials called it good. And the Bucs used the momentum of that decision to launch a 17-6 run that put the Bearcats (4-14, 1-8) on their heels the rest of the way.
The victory, witnessed by a crowd of 1,450, pushed Whitworth’s school-record winning streak to 15 and spoiled an inspired Willamette effort that duly impressed Hayford.
“They played really, really hard and did a good job of spreading us out on defense,” he said of the Bearcats, who were paced by Cameron Mitchell’s 26 points and 11 rebounds. “When you have a national ranking like ours, teams are going to say, ‘Hey, we can make our season by beating these guys. Let’s go out and do something special.
“So you’re going to get their best punch. I didn’t feel our energy level was where it needed to be in the first half, but I liked the fact that we never panicked. We kept grinding and got it done.”
The Pirates, who trailed by as many as eight points in the second half, got a game-high 29 points and 10 rebounds from senior center Nate Montgomery and 18 points, each, from David Riley and Wade Gebbers. But the big key, offensively, was their consistency from the foul line, where they converted 38 of 47 free throws against an aggressive Willamette team that was whistled for 29 fouls.
“I can’t believe they were able to handle the attrition from all those fouls,” Hayford marveled. “They played a lot of guys and had a great game plan for us. I’m just glad were pulled away at the end.”
Montgomery, a 6-foot-8, 240-pounder from Sammamish, dropped in eight of 11 basket tries and 12 of 15 free throws to come within four points of matching his career-high scoring total of 33.
“Nate’s a load,” Hayford sadi. “It’s hard for people to guard him inside.”
After their late-game run produced an 89-79 lead with 2:37 left, the Bucs went on to knock down 10 straight free throws that made the final score remarkably deceiving.
The Pirates had trouble getting anyone other than Riley involved in the offense early on, and also had a tough time containing Mitchell, who came in averaging 20.1 points and 12.5 rebounds a game. The agile 6-7 senior burned the Bucs for 10 points in the first nine minutes of the contest and finished the opening period with 14.
The Bearcats also got 13 first-half points from sophomore forward Taylor Mounts and were leading 38-36 before letting the Pirates loose on a 9-4 run that provided a 45-42 cushion at intermission.
Montgomery finished the half with 16 points, nine of which came from the foul line.
Willamette shot 51.6 percent (16-31) from the field in the opening 20 minutes and also knocked down five of 11 attempts from 3-point range. Whitworth, despite the long-range sniping of Riley, who scored all 12 of his first-half points from beyond arc, shot just 37.5 percent.