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Whits to be home after bye in D-III

Everyone associated with the Whitworth University men’s basketball program came into the 2009-10 season with high expectations – most of which were met, or exceeded, during the regular season.

And another lofty goal was reached on Monday morning when the selection committee for the NCAA Division III tournament rewarded the fifth-ranked Pirates (25-2) with a first-round tournament bye and host’s role for a second-round game.

“It’s what we were hoping for, and what we thought we might get,” admitted ninth-year head coach Jim Hayford, whose Bucs are riding a school-record 24-game winning streak after breezing through the Northwest Conference regular season with a 16-0 record and then winning the league tournament last weekend to earn an automatic berth in the NCAA’s 61-team field.

The Pirates will open tournament play in the Whitworth Fieldhouse at 7 p.m. on Saturday against the winner of Thursday night’s first-round game between Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (21-6) and Chapman University (23-2). This will be the third straight year the Bucs have hosted a national tournament game.

“We were really excited to learn that we get to host another one,” said junior forward David Riley, an All-NWC first-team pick from Palo Alto, Calif. “I’ve been lucky enough, now, to do that all three years I’ve been here.

“The last two years the atmosphere was really great, and I would expect more of the same this year.”

The Pirates, who are making their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance and fifth overall, have feasted on home cooking throughout Hayford’s tenure, posting an impressive 85-10 record in the Whitworth Fieldhouse, where they are a perfect 16-0 this year.

Since the 2001-02 season, the Bucs have gone 52-3 at home, where they have won 21 straight games.

“The last two years, our fans have really amped it up for the tournament,” Riley added, “and this year, they’ve been great all season long.”

Also working in the Pirates’ favor is the fact that they are familiar with both C-M-S and Chapman and have had recent success against both schools. Whitworth beat Chapman 62-47 during the regular season last year and then avenged a regular-season loss to C-M-S by thumping the Stags 81-63 in the opening round of last year’s D-III tournament.

“We’re definitely going to have a big target on our backs (on Saturday), because we beat both of those teams last year,” said senior center Nate Montgomery, the Bucs’ top scorer (16.6 points per game) and rebounder (8.0 per game), who was recently named the NWC player of the year. “Whoever we play, we know they’ll be gunning for us.”

Chapman received one of the two tournament berths awarded to independent schools, while C-M-S earned its spot in the elite field by winning the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference regular-season and tournament titles for the second straight year.

Whitworth is the only NWC school in the national field.

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