Whitworth punched its dance card with extra emphasis.
The No. 8-ranked Pirate men captured their seventh straight Northwest Conference basketball tournament championship, crushing archrival Whitman 93-72 Saturday night in a packed and raucous Fieldhouse – clinching the automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament.
The team (24-3) will find out who, and more importantly where, it plays in the first round of the tournament Monday morning at 9:30, when the NCAA releases the tournament bracket.
“It would be great to play at home, but something our coaching staff has been saying all year is that we have to be able to go out and win on the road,” senior Mack Larkin said. “If we go out and play like we did tonight, we can beat anybody in the country.”
Whitman snapped Whitworth’s 20-game win streak with a 93-90 win at Walla Walla earlier this month, and Larkin said that avenging that loss added a note of extra sweetness to the victory.
“For Wade (Gebbers) and me, for our whole career, Whitman has been the one team that has given us the most trouble,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make it even more special.”
Larkin saved his career-best scoring night for what could have been his final home game, scoring 22 points. And he got to his total by hitting his first 10 shots from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“Our plan was to look down the floor instead of just laterally against their press,” he said. “I was the beneficiary of some really good passes.”
Larkin also set a career record for most jerseys worn in a game.
At the bottom of a heap under the Whitman basket after a scramble for the ball, Larkin came up with blood on the front of his No. 23 jersey. Game officials ordered him to get checked by the trainer, but it wasn’t Larkin’s blood and he changed to a No. 5 jersey for the second half.
Both teams started fast, and Whitman, which got its first eight points from NWC Player of the Year Ben Eisenhardt, led by a point 3 minutes into the game.
Colton McCargar and Gebbers both stroked a pair of 3-pointers to spark a 18-4 run that put the Pirates comfortably in the lead and the Missionaries never cut the lead to single digits again.
Gebbers finished with 14 points, 12 in the first half as he helped stake the Bucs to a 53-32 halftime advantage.
When coach Matt Logie subbed out his starters with 1:13 left, Gebbers and the coach shared an emotional hug.
”This place if full of a lot of love,” Gebbers said. “This place (Whitworth) is small enough that we’re in classes with just about everybody out there in the stands. The players, our families, we love each other.”
“This team is a family,” Logie echoed. “This team has come so far this season and it’s been our seniors, Wade, Mack and Zach, who have led the way. This is a special group.”
Whitworth has no guarantee of hosting a tournament game.
“I think most of us are going to be in class Monday morning, but I’m sure we’ll all get a text message just as soon as we find out who we play,” Larkin said. “And we’ll start getting ready for that game as soon as we all get to practice at 3 p.m.”