For the first time since 1978, Whitworth University opened the men’s basketball with a loss at home.
St. Thomas University fended off a furious rally in the final minute by the Pirates to earn a 70-65 win in front of a packed Fieldhouse crowd that included a student section that doubled as a flash mob.
Whitworth trailed by as many as 14 points early in the second half, but could get no closer than three points in the final minute.
“That’s a very good Division III team; you have to give St. Thomas a lot of respect,” Whitworth coach Matt Logie said. “That’s a veteran team that has 10 players back and they all know their role.
“We’re still in the infancy stage of figuring out who we are. We’re going to get there. If we’re within five points of a team like St. Thomas now, I’ll take it.”
St. Thomas, from St. Paul, Minn., was the 2011 Division III national champion and has won the past four consecutive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference crowns while posting a cumulative record of 105-15. The Tommies are ranked No. 11 in the preseason Division III poll.
With a number of veterans from that national championship team, facing a season-opener on the road wasn’t a big challenge for the Tommies, who took a 9-3 lead 3 minutes into the contest and held a 14-point lead, 38-24, with 2 minutes left in the first half.
Senior guard John Nance kept the Tommies on a steady course despite the surroundings. Nance led the team in scoring with 16 points and five assists. Junior guard Erik Tengwall added another 15 points. The Tommies were 6 of 7 from the free-throw line in the final 5 minutes while the guard play of Nance, Tengwall and senior Will DeBerg weathered the Whitworth press.
St. Thomas was 21 of 25 from the line for the game while Whitworth hit 15 of 23.
St. Thomas was efficient, too, from long range, converting 5 of 10 from behind the 3-point line.
Whitworth, on the other hand, looked for the 3-pointer to get back into the game, but converted just 6 of 22 attempts.
Whitworth’s Wade Gebbers, an all-Northwest Conference second-team selection a year ago, led all scorers with 23 points, including a lay-up at the buzzer. Dustin McConnell added another 10 points.
The last visiting team to win at the Fieldhouse to open Whitworth’s season was Gonzaga in 1978.