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Second-ranked Whitworth refocuses for conference tournament

Wed., Feb. 23, 2011

Jim Hayford chooses his words carefully when asked about the effect, if any, last week’s shocking 82-79 road loss to Northwest Conference rival Whitman might have on his Whitworth University men’s basketball team heading into the start of the four-team conference tournament.

On one hand, the Pirates’ head coach wants to make it clear he detests losing. But on the other, he would like to think his players might benefit in some small way from their first loss of the season, a stunner that dropped the Bucs (24-1, 15-1 in the NWC) from first to second in this week’s top-25 poll.

“You always want to win every game, and, obviously, we didn’t,” Hayford said, when asked about the defeat, in which his Pirates failed to score in the final 5 minutes, 41 seconds, coughing up a 79-65 lead. “But maybe there’s a blessing in disguise.

“On the positive side, it might be best to let someone else carry that No. 1-in-the-nation label into the national tournament. The last (NCAA) Division I team I remember that ran the whole table was Indiana, and that was 33 years ago.”

Whitworth responded well to its loss to Whitman, crushing Pacific 84-45 – again, on the road – four days later behind what Hayford considered his team’s best overall defensive effort of the season. And the No. 2-ranked and top-seeded Pirates have a chance to continue their recent dominance in the NWC tournament when they entertain fourth-seeded Pacific Lutheran (15-9, 10-6) in a semifinal showdown that tips off at 7 Thursday night at Whitworth Fieldhouse.

“I think we maybe paid the price for not having been in a real close game all year,” Hayford said, recalling the Whitman loss. “You can sometimes forget the taste of defeat.

“I don’t want to sound, in any way, that I’m glad we lost, but I don’t think it’s going to work against us.”

The Bucs, who earned the homecourt advantage throughout the tournament by winning the regular-season NWC title by four games, have won the last four NWC tournaments and are heavily favored to run that streak to five. They handled PLU easily in both regular-season matchups between the two schools – beating the Lutes 93-58 in Spokane and 85-59 on the road – and have won 11 consecutive games in the series.

The PLU-Whitworth winner will advance to Saturday night’s championship against the winner of Thursday night’s other semifinal in which second-seeded Whitman will host third-seeded Lewis & Clark.

David Riley, Whitworth’s 6-foot-5 senior guard and second-leading scorer with an average of 17.1 points per game, buys into Hayford’s view that the Pirates might ultimately benefit from the unexpected loss to Whitman.

“It’s never a good thing to lose,” he said. “But, at the same time, I think we’ve come back with a renewed sense of resolve. Our practices since then have been extremely competitive, and everyone seems to be focusing a little harder on what we need to do to get better, and what we were missing during the Whitman game.

“That loss, I think, has made us hungrier.”

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