Mack Larkin prides himself on hard-nosed defense. If only his nose were a bit harder.
“It’s been broken a few times,” Larkin says with a shrug. He pauses to count: “Five times, I guess. The last three playing basketball, but it’s just part of the game.”
So is tough defense, the kind that doesn’t show on the stat sheet but has helped Whitworth make another deep run in the NCAA Division III tournament. The Pirates host Mary Hardin-Baylor on Saturday night in a Sweet 16 game that will be Larkin’s last at Whitworth Fieldhouse.
“It’s gone by so fast,” said Larkin, a senior forward. “And that’s a testament to how much fun I’ve had being a Whitworth Pirate.”
For Larkin, Saturday means one more chance to get up close with the opponent’s leading scorer, fire up the crowd with a big 3-pointer, or help break the full-court press. Larkin did all of the above in an 86-67 tournament win last week over Emory.
“He’s our most versatile player,” Whitworth coach Matt Logie said. “He understands our game plan, and makes others better by covering up for those mistakes.”
Not bad for a guy who was struggling in transition after high school back in Anacortes, Wash. With an older brother already to enrolled at Whitworth, he had already seen the campus. He was sold on the school, but was selling himself short when it came to basketball.
Despite a stellar senior season at Anacortes High in 2009, the Larkin doubted he’d play competitively after high school.
He was already on campus “when I had a switch flip inside me,” Larkin said. “It was a last-minute decision – I wanted to play.”
That meant walking on – and walking in late to his first team meeting. “I went to the wrong building,” Larkin said. “When I showed up late, I know the team was wondering about this guy – does he really think he’s going to make the team?”
Fortunately, Larkin was in the best shape of his life. “That’s my favorite memory of walking on: the challenge of not knowing and coming in and really having to prove myself,” Larkin said.
After playing in 14 games as a freshman – “at a completely different level of basketball I wasn’t used to” – Larkin blossomed along with the entire team in 2010-11 – arguably Jim Hayford’s best at Whitworth and still the school’s only Elite Eight qualifier.
After Hayford moved on to Eastern Washington, Larkin moved into a starter’s role.
In Logie’s first year, Larkin averaged seven points and almost four rebounds while starting 25 games on a team that reached the Sweet 16.
“I scored a lot in high school, but that’s not my role here,” the 6-foot-5 Larkin said, embracing the role of a role player. His nose has never been out of joint, except in the team photo.
“I knew if I was going to be successful it would be in the defensive role,” Larkin said. “It’s a different mind-set. It takes a lot more communication and the amount of energy expended.”
This season, Larkin averages 7.8 points and 4.4 boards, numbers that are trending upward when it matters most. He scored a career-high 22 in a Northwest Conference semifinal win over Lewis & Clark, then scored 12 more and grabbed six boards last week against Emory.
“He gives us all thse intangibles, because he can shoot,” Logie said. “And he can handle the ball.”
And the pressure. Two minutes into the Emory game, it was Larkin who took the first big shot, a momentum-seizing 3 that sent the Whitworth student section into delirium.
“I think we’re pretty spoiled here,” Larkin said. “You look up in the stands and you know nine out of 10 people and that makes it special.”