Whitworth men, women set to duel familiar foes in NCAA Division III tourney openers
The Whitworth men’s and women’s basketball teams find themselves exactly where they wanted to be when all those grueling practices started last fall: Playing in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Now the fun begins as the No. 12 Whitworth men’s team (22-5) travels to play against Trinity (19-9) at the campus of University of Texas-Dallas in Richardson, Texas.
The men’s team won the regular-season Northwest Conference title and showed a penchant for late-game heroics as it won several close games, including a thrilling come-from-behind 71-68 win in the conference final last Saturday against Puget Sound.
“We are really excited to be in the NCAA tournament again,” said coach Matt Logie. “Any time you play big games, you have to travel. Our guys know that.”
The Whitworth women’s team (20-7) also plays today against George Fox (22-4) at 5 p.m. at the Sherwood Center in Walla Walla. It’s the second consecutive year the Pirates pulled off an upset in the Northwest Conference tournament final to earn an NCAA bid.
“We are going in with the attitude that we can win,” said coach Helen Higgs, who surpassed 300 career wins this year at Whitworth. “But we are not getting ahead of ourselves.”
While both teams play familiar opponents, a study of games played and common opponents doesn’t produce any clear-cut advantage for either Pirates squad.
The Tigers and Pirates men played Nov. 15 and Whitworth won 71-53. Zach Lambert, the Tigers’ second-leading scorer, missed the game with an illness.
“They certainly have a different feel and look to them” from when they played the Pirates, Logie said of Trinity, which is playing in its third consecutive tournament and ninth under 15-year coach Pat Cunningham.
“But we also have had several players find their roles.”
Higgs said about the only time her team lost focus this year was the final regular season game, a 82-78 loss to Lewis & Clark.
The setback dropped the Pirates to the third seed and forced them to play at George Fox in the conference tournament.
The Pirates handled the Bruins 74-55 and then turned around and beat previously undefeated Whitman to earn the tournament bid.
“When you beat a team of their level, it helps you,” Higgs said of the Whitman win. “But I hope we don’t think that’s our big moment.”
Whitworth lost to George Fox 59-56 on Jan. 17 on the road. The Pirates then beat the Bruins 72-68 on Feb. 15 in the Whitworth Fieldhouse.