Following a dismal first half, Whitworth University’s 6-foot-8, 242-pound junior center Felix Friedt started acting like he was Felix Friedt again.
The belated transformation proved crucial Thursday night at Whitworth as the No. 2-ranked and top-seeded Pirates overcame some early shooting woes and turned back fourth-seeded Pacific Lutheran 74-63 in the semifinals of the Northwest Conference tournament.
But had it not been for the all-around play of teammate Michael Taylor, Friedt’s 11 second-half points might have arrived too late to save the Bucs, who will host second-seeded Whitman – a 79-76 semifinal winner over Lewis & Clark on Thursday – in Saturday’s 7 p.m. NWC title game that will determine the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
Taylor, a 6-4 senior guard, finished with 30 points – 20 of which came in the first half – and also ran down five rebounds in helping Whitworth (25-1) sidestep a massive upset in front of a crowd of 1,275.
“I thought Felix really exerted himself in the second half,” Pirates coach Jim Hayford said of Friedt, who took only two shots and failed to score in the first half. “But I thought Michael Taylor exerted himself the whole 40 minutes.”
Taylor was quick to agree with Hayford that a lot of the Bucs’ problem with their shooting early in the game was attributable to their tentative approach on offense.
“I think guys were thinking about it too much,” he said. “We’ve got a great second group of guys on our team, and when they guard us at practice and we’re tentative like they, they beat us. That’s how we were playing in the first half.
“But when we can just clear our minds, execute and be crisp, the shots go in.”
Which was the case in the second half when Whitworth shot 52.2 percent (12 for 23) to overcome a 32-28 halftime deficit and reel in the Lutes (15-10), who were making their first appearance in the NWC tournament.
Senior forward David Riley, after scoring only two first-half points, also finished with 11 and threw in a deep 3-pointer from well beyond the top of the key to give Whitworth a 60-56 advantage with just more than 3½ minutes left. A tip-in bucket by Clay Gebber just 30 seconds later extended the lead to six, and the Pirates closed the deal by making 12 consecutive free throws in the final 2½ minutes.
PLU, which got a team-high 14 points from Andrew Earnest, used Whitworth’s 2-for-10 shooting in the early going to build an early 12-5 lead. The Lutes continued to control the game by hounding the Bucs on the defensive end of the court and scoring the ball late in the shot clock on the offensive end.
“It postseason basketball, you’re playing guys on the other team that may never got put the uniform on again,” Hayford said. “They’ve playing with a sense of urgency, and I give PLU credit. I thought they came out with a great game plan and executed it well.
“In the first half, we looked tentative, and they scored really well at the end of the shot clock, which is a real run-killer. But it’s a 40-minute game, and our defense finally kicked it and buckled down.”