Whitworth University men’s basketball coach Jim Hayford walked into the locker room at halftime of Saturday night’s Northwest Conference tournament final against Whitman with what appeared to be a group of rather timid, disengaged young boys – especially on the offensive end of the floor.
But after intermission, he returned with a bunch of men, eagerly willing to match the physical play of the Missionaries punch for punch and elbow for elbow – but not basket for basket, as they had in the first half.
And that more aggressive approach changed the game completely as the No. 2-ranked and top-seeded Pirates broke away from a halftime tie and muscled their way to a 74-50 win that delighted most of the 1,928 who had packed into Whitworth Fieldhouse.
Mike Taylor finished with a game-high 24 points, and Felix Friedt added 16 – all in the second half – along with a game-high 11 rebounds as the Bucs (26-1) earned their fifth consecutive automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament by avenging an 82-79 road loss to the Missionaries (19-8) on Feb. 15.
“We learned our lesson in Walla Walla, that it’s a 40-minute game,” Hayford said, referring to the almost 6-minute, end-of-game scoring drought his team suffered in its only loss thus far. “I knew we were going to have a great second half.
“We just had to find a way to get through the first one.”
Which proved to be one major struggle, as the Pirates – in settling for far too many perimeter jumpers, without exploring opportunities inside – shot a paltry 29 percent (9-31) from the field and finished the opening period with just 26 points, their lowest first-half scoring output of the season.
In addition, they were outrebounded by six and outscored in the paint 12-0.
But that all changed following intermission as the Bucs started searching out shots for Friedt on the low blocks.
And the 6-foot-8, 242-pound junior responded by muscling in all six shots he took and scoring six of eight unanswered points Whitworth scored midway through the second half to build a 59-42 lead that was never threatened.
“Their zone was really spread out, and we weren’t getting enough interior touches for Felix in that first half,” said senior forward David Riley, whose 10 points also came after intermission. “He’s a real bruiser in there, and it’s great to have a guy like him who can step up like that on offense make one-on-one plays.”
Friedt admitted to being a bit too reactive in the first half.
“I just had to exert myself a little more,” he said. “I was too passive the first half; too timid, so I had to come out a littler stronger and more aggressive.”
The brackets for the NCAA Division III Tournament will be announced Monday morning at 10. Whitworth has earned a first-round bye and a second-round home game.