Getting hot is a good thing for a basketball team, but WHEN a team gets hot is even more important.
Home for Christmas after a three-game sweep and almost a week in Southern California, the 11th-ranked Whitworth Pirates withstood a blistering start by Simpson College Saturday night, chasing down the Storm in the second half for a 77-69 nonconference win at the Fieldhouse.
Coming off a hard-fought loss to Whitman Thursday in Walla Walla, the Storm, from Indianola, Iowa, came in both loose and ready to play, scrumming up several times pregame to chant and pump themselves even higher.
“I didn’t choreograph any of that,” third-year Simpson coach Charles Zanders said, sheepishly, after the last circle-up before tipoff.
The pump-up sessions worked, but they didn’t last. Simpson hit nine of their first 10 shots and by as many 10 points early.
In the second half, Simpson turned colder than Montgomery Burns’ heart.
Standing in front of his own bench, Zanders looked at the clock midway through the second half and felt the chill. “We’ve scored six points in 10 minutes?” he asked no on in particular.
What heat leaked from the Simpson offense found its way to Whitworth, who were a respectable 14 for 30 in the first half. The Pirates rallied from 10 points down to have a shot at taking the lead at intermission only to see guard Dustin McConnell’s 3-point attempt rim off and leave the score at 40-38.
In the second half, the Pirates shot 70 percent from the floor and led by as many as 13 points down the stretch.
“I think it took us a little while to find the defensive intensity we needed, and that’s been our hallmark so far,” Whitworth coach Matt Logie said. “(Simpson) was effective, but I think we were a little flat-footed on defense. I think we were much more effective defensively in the second half.”
Senior Mack Larkin led three players in double figures for Whitworth, tossing in a career high 17 points, including a pair of clutch 3-pointers, and dishing off three assists.
Wade Gebbers, finally healthy after a list of ailments that nagged the senior guard for the past month, scored 16 points, including four 3-pointers. McConnell added 10 points and four assists.
“Mack played some really strong defense, he shot the ball really well and he made some great passes,” Gebbers said. “Mack, Zach (Payne) and I are team captains and the team looks to us.
“My back is finally healthy. I think I’ve spent more time in the training room than I have on the court in my career here.”
With starting center Taylor Farnsworth out with a minor injury, Payne stepped into the starting lineup and scored nine points and pulled down four rebounds whole filling the middle against the Storm.
Sophomore Adam Wilks was solid in relief as well, pulling down a team-high six boards to go with seven points.
“All of our (centers) have come in and played well whenever we’ve asked them to,” Logie said. “We’re really pleased with our depth right now, and we have some more players who haven’t gotten the opportunity to come in and contribute and will.”
Logie said he was impressed with the athleticism his team faced in Simpson.
“That may be the best 4-7 team you’re ever going to see,” he said. “That’s a quality program and they’ve played some nationally ranked teams.”
The Pirates reach a five-day Christmas break on a high note, sweeping all three games in Southern California, including back-to-back wins over Chapman and Redlands.
“It was a good road trip for us,” Gebbers said. “We’ve been on a break for classes for about a week and we were able to just focus in on basketball. We were together for the whole time like that for the first time this year and that’s good for a team.”
The win was the ninth-straight for Whitworth after a season-opening loss, and it sends the team into a five-day Christmas break.
The Pirates play their final game of 2012 on New Year’s Eve. The Pipers of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, visit the Fieldhouse for the first time.