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Whitworth men storm ahead to NWC championship

Whitworth University (Whitworth University)

Whitworth took some time to get into its comfort zone Thursday night, and that may be a good thing.

With a spot in the Division III tournament still in doubt, the Pirates played with an obvious sense of urgency in finishing off Lewis & Clark 87-62 in a Northwest Conference semifinal game at the Whitworth Fieldhouse.

That settled one score – Whitworth lost at LC in its regular-season finale last weekend – but the Pirates still need to beat Puget Sound on Saturday to be assured of their eighth straight trip to the NCAAs.

Third-seeded UPS won 71-66 at Whitman in the other semifinal Thursday night.

Tipoff is Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Fieldhouse. A loss to the Loggers would mean a couple of sleepless nights before Monday’s brackets are announced, because while the Pirates are ranked 15th nationally, they’re only fifth in the all-important West Region rankings.

In other words, they’re on the bubble – the one the Pirates reside on partly because of their 79-76 overtime loss at Lewis & Clark five days ago.

“We wanted redemption from last week,” Whitworth forward Christian Jurlina said. “We played a bit lethargic last week, so our main focus was to come out aggressive and angry as possible.”

The Pirates (21-5) got that redemption partly from Jurlina, who hit 10 of 15 shots en route to a game-high 23 points. Right behind him was point guard Dustin McConnell – in more ways than one.

McConnell scored 15 points and found Jurlina for several of his eight assists while playing a turnover-free game. The Pirates gave up the ball just three times – a season low – while getting 15 takeaways.

“I thought Dustin was phenomenal in getting the ball to people where they could score,” said Whitworth coach Matt Logie, whose team was 33 for 58 from the field and 11 for 19 from 3-point range.

Forward Colton McCargar added 22 points on 8-for-14 shooting, including 4 for 6 from long range.

“Our offense was a large improvement from last week,” said Jurlina, adding that the Pirates’ balanced scoring of late “makes us more versatile.”

But the Pirates are one game away from another NWC tournament championship because of their defense. The Pioneers (18-8) were still within six points with less than 12 minutes to play before Whitworth made its decisive run.

Jurlina hit a 12-foot jumper to give the Pirates a 60-52 lead.McCargar followed his two free throws with a steal. He passed to McConnell, who found Jurlina for a wide-open 3-pointer that made it 65-52 with 9:39 to play.

That forced a timeout by the Pioneers, who promptly had the ball stolen by McConnell. Ten seconds later, Jurlina’s layup gave the Pirates their biggest lead of the game, 69-54 with 9:05 to play.

At that point, the game got completely away from the Pioneers. Ninety seconds later, reserve Kenny Love drilled a 3-pointer on his only shot of the night to make it 74-54.

The lead grew to as many as 27 in the final minutes as both benches emptied.

“I think we did a good job deflecting the ball, creating turnovers and then getting out in transition,” said Logie, who improved to 8-1 against Lewis & Clark despite some early “ebbs and flows, especially on defense.”

The Pirates built a big lead in the first half only to see the Pioneers get back into the game. A steal and layin by forward George Valle put the Pirates ahead 22-14, and McConnell’s 3-pointer made it 30-19 but LC clawed its way back into a single-digit deficit before Jurlina’s layin made it 45-34 at halftime.

That lead almost vanished twice in the second half. A 52-40 lead dwindled to four on Randall Jackson’s layup with 13:51 left, and it was down to six before the Pirates made their decisive move.

But that’s just history now, Logie said after the game.

“Honestly, you put this one behind you at this point,” Logie said. “Going into tonight, we had a maximum of seven more games to go, so each game means the same thing.”