March 16, 2013 in Sports

Blanchette: Whitworth still has a legacy to work on

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

They were calling this the biggest thing to happen at Whitworth University since Jay Graves gave them all this land.

And, yes, the students were squeezed under the dome so tightly Saturday night they looked to be sharing the same white shirt.

Still, there was a question that needed to be asked:

Was it so big that classes were canceled?

Didn’t think so.

Getting to the Sweet 16 of NCAA Division III basketball – and getting a chance to advance by playing at home – was more than a big deal to the Whitworth Pirates, even if it all ended sadly in a 71-63 loss to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor at the Whitworth Fieldhouse.

The home court can only do so much for you. Have to put the ball in  the home basket, too.

It is hardly fair to call this a wasted opportunity, no matter that the Pirates probably will never again play a game this deep into the tournament in front of their happy nutzos. And that was not the weighty part of their disappointment anyway.

Over is over, no matter where it’s over.

Then it becomes about legacies and moving forward, and jumping over bars set ever higher.

“Sitting in the locker thinking what if I’d worked harder in the summer or got more shots up today, or what did sleeping in yesterday do for me – you don’t want to have those thoughts,” said senior Mack Larkin.

“It takes being here right now in the situation we’re in to really feel that.”

Makes for a terse lesson.

“Work hard,” he said. “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

The passion Matt Logie’s Pirates milked time and again during this 26-4 season was on display again this night. Down 12 with as many minutes to go, Whitworth rallied around the second-half shooting of Dustin McConnell not just to get even, but to twice take four-point leads.

But the Cru – UMH-B prefers that to Crusaders, which seems rather secular of them – was a model of making the right pass, the right shot and the right stop in the winning minutes. The visitors had an inside game the Pirates didn’t, reflected in the rebounding (plus 12) and dependency on the 3 (Whitworth took twice as many).

And like Whitworth, the Cru had tough-minded veteran players with purpose. That made it a push in an area where the Pirates have leveraged success all season.

Maybe no Pirate felt the leaden ending quite as much as Wade Gebbers. A senior whose immediate and extended family has populated Whitworth rosters for what seems like 50 years now, his shot abandoned him this game (1 for 10), so he turned his attention to getting the ball to hotter teammates and scrapping hungrily on the defensive end. The achievements on his watch were remarkable – four D-III tournament trips, and a stay at No. 1 in 2011. He presumes there will be more.

“There’s always the national championship,” he said. “Every team strives for that, and it can be won here.”

Of course, they’ll have to do it the harder way.

For the occasion of the 75th NCAA tournament, the D-IIIs and D-IIs get to play their title game on the off day of the Final Four in Atlanta. So for one year, the NCAA did away with the damnable pod system that sent that No. 1 Whitworth team on the road two years ago.

But next year, it’s back to the same old, same old.

The Whits will never host one of those pods because that would require three teams to get on a plane to reach Spokane. The NCAA likes the real student-athletes in its charge to go by bus as often as possible.

“Last I checked, there are 17 D-III schools west of the Rockies,” said Whitworth athletic director Aaron Leetch.

Back East, throw a rock and you’ll hit one, and the ricochet will hit another.

“It’s something the NCAA understands,” Leetch said, “but I don’t think they can financially get beyond the notion of only have one team fly. That’s the gist of their charge to the committee.”

True, the D-IIIs don’t make the NCAA a dime. Neither does D-I volleyball, but those teams get flown here, there and everywhere.

One way or another, the NCAA needs to find a way to spread some of the excitement the standing-room crowd of 1,820 enjoyed here to more campuses. Maybe Mary Hardin-Baylor’s next time.

In the meantime, Whitworth will work on that legacy – which, let’s not forget, goes all the way back to that NAIA title-game craziness in 1996 (when classes did get canceled).

“Our coach has a good saying,” said McConnell, a junior. “Tradition never graduates.”

That makes for a daunting challenge every game, and not just the big ones.

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