WOOSTER, Ohio – It’s not often the No. 1 team in the country has to go on the road in the Division III men’s basketball national tournament, at least not until the final four, but that’s the hand that was dealt to the Whitworth Pirates.
Saturday night, the Pirates were held to their lowest scoring output of the season, shooting just 40 percent in a 76-66 loss to The College of Wooster (Ohio) at the Fighting Scots’ Timken Gym.
The quarterfinal loss ends the Pirates’ season at 28-2, and continues the curse on West Coast teams in the Division III tourney. No team farther west than Washington University of St. Louis has ever won a national championship.
Facing the fifth-ranked Scots and their sellout crowd of 3,330, Whitworth battled back from a 37-33 halftime deficit to lead 51-49 on David Riley’s three-point play with 8:30 to play that ended a 14-4 Bucs’ run.
The Scots (30-2) came back with an 11-2 run of their own to reclaim their advantage. Michael Taylor’s long 3-pointer got the Bucs within five with 41 seconds remaining, but Wooster made 6 of 7 free throws from there to seal its third trip to the final four (2003, ’07).
“I’ve gotta give the Wooster defense all the credit,” said Whitworth coach Jim Hayford, whose team was just 11 of 30 from the field in the second half. “We knew they had a very good team, and I’ve gotta give their defense 100 percent credit.”
Whitworth senior Michael Taylor scored 25 points in his final game but was 8-of-20 shooting and committed seven turnovers, while senior David Riley, averaging 16.5 points, was scoreless in the first half and ended with 11. Junior post Felix Freidt scored all 10 of his points in the first half and also had 10 rebounds, while Jack Loofburrow came off the bench for 14 points.
“They made me, personally, take some tough shots,” Taylor said. “They played us hard on defense, made me take some tough shots, and not enough of them fell.”
Ian Franks led Wooster with 19 points, with Justin Hallowell adding 16 and a team-high eight rebounds. Wooster’s Justin Warnes came off the bench for a career-high 11 points, including 3 of 4 3-pointers, and was part of the group that hounded Taylor the entire game.
“(Taylor) is definitely the best player I’ve guarded all year,” said the 6-2 Warnes, who added 11 points, including an electrifying baseline drive and two-handed slam in the first half. “I just tried to stay with him, keep him at arm’s length and get both hands up when he shot it.”
Whitworth led by as many as eight points in the first half before Wooster rallied for its halftime lead. Matt Fegan hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Hallowell drained another from 30 feet, as the Scots were 11 of 21 beyond the arc.
“We fell behind early, but nobody lost their poise, and that’s as a result of playing so many tough games and knowing we could do it,” Wooster coach Steve Moore said. “And, obviously, there’s no doubt that our defense was a huge key. To defend such a good, talented team, every guy out there had to get his job done.”
The Pirates came up short of their goal, but Hayford knows seniors Gebbers, Riley and Taylor have left their mark on the program, taking it to the quarterfinals for the first time.
“Start with Clay and David, four-year guys, and we’ve been to the NCAA tournament all four years,” Hayford said. “Mike, we had for just one year, but he’s pretty special.”
“I can’t thank Coach and the guys enough for taking me in and allowing me to be part of something way bigger than one player,” said Taylor, a Montana transfer. “To have the season we had just adds to the luster of playing basketball at Whitworth.”
Wooster will meet Williams (Mass.) Friday in the first national semifinal, with the other game featuring St. Thomas (Minn.) and Middlebury (Vt.).