The Whitworth men’s basketball team has been there before, in every way you can consider.
Emotionally, geographically and athletically, the Pirates will be right at home in the heart of Texas today for the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
Seventh-ranked Whitworth (24-3) will face McMurry today at 3:30 in Belton, Texas. The winner will advance to a second-round game Saturday against either Trinity or host Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Whitworth is the only team in the pod not from Texas, but the Pirates know how to win away from the Whitworth Fieldhouse, going 12-1 this season.
The Pirates, playing in their sixth straight tournament, know what to expect, besides temperatures in the 80s. Their first big road trip was down the highway in San Antonio, at the DIII Invitational in December.
“It was one of our first trips of the year,” junior guard Wade Gebbers said. “We know what it’s like to go on a trip like that, and it will help us get mentally prepared.”
The Pirates’ mental preparation will instead focus on the surprising War Hawks, who were near elimination for nearly a month.
McMurry, which has won five in a row and seven of its last eight, didn’t clinch a postseason berth until the next-to-last game of the regular season, then won the American Southwest Conference tournament.
The War Hawks (20-8) combine an up-tempo offense with the biggest rebounding margin in all of Division III – a staggering plus-12.2 per game.
“We know we have to put up our best effort on the glass and play hard,” said Whitworth post Felix Friedt, who averages 16 points and 8.8 rebounds. The 6-foot-8 Friedt will square off under the boards against Steven Jones, who packs 270 pounds into a 6-foot-3 frame and averages 17.4 points and nine boards.
War Hawk forward Dominick Walker averages eight points and nine rebounds.
McMurry’s second-highest scorer is guard Jason Isler, son of first-year coach J.D. Isler, who will take the War Hawks up to Division II next season.
The War Hawks have already played at the Mary Hardin-Baylor gym, defeating the Crusaders 77-69 in the second round. They clinched the ASC’s automatic bid with an 86-81 overtime win over Hardin-Simmons.
“McMurry is playing really well right now,” Whitworth coach Matt Logie said. “They’ve hit their stride, winning the conference tournament and defeating some really good teams.”
The War Hawks, with four seniors in the starting lineup, average 88 points a game and like to force a fast pace.
“We’re expect high-tempo game with a lot of pressure, so we’ve got to go down there and keep our poise and be ready to handle that pressure,” Gebbers said.
But Gebbers noted that the Pirates see that often in the Northwest Conference, “so it’s not going to be anything foreign to us.”
In the nightcap at 5:30, 10th-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (25-2), will face Trinity (20-8).