In the end, Whitworth simply ran out of answers Tuesday night.
Or perhaps the Wheaton Thunder posed too many questions.
“We had our moments, but not enough of them,” Whitworth coach Matt Logie said after a 92-84 nonconference men’s basketball loss, the Pirates’ first of the season.
Seventh-ranked Whitworth filled a few highlight reels in an entertaining, fastbreak game at the Fieldhouse but fell short on the fundamentals.
Poor shooting – at the foul line and from long range – plus some lapses on the glass were the difference in a game that seemed within reach until the final 2 minutes.
When it was over, guard Kyle Roach tried to stay optimistic.
“We’ll break this down and use it as motivation to get better,” said Roach, who finished with 21 points while playing 39 minutes.
Whitworth (8-1) answered the biggest question: how to shut down Wheaton guard Aston Francis, who came into the game with a 29.7-point scoring average that ranked third in Division III.
With 6 minutes left in the first half, Francis had 13 points. He finished short of his average with 21, but he dished out nine assists to keep the Pirates off balance.
Down by 13 late in the first half and by five at the half, Whitworth clawed its way back in the game.
Guard Jordan Lester – who finished with a game-high 24 points and five steals – forced two early turnovers to and Roach hit two free throws to give Whitworth a two-point lead early in the second half.
Wheaton regained the advantage with an 8-2 run, and Whitworth played an uphill game from there. It was made steeper by a season-worst 17-for-30 (57 percent) night at the foul line.
“That’s uncharacteristic of us,” said Logie, who watched the Thunder hit 21 of 24 free throws.
Neither side was effective from long range – Wheaton was 7 for 29 and Whitworth 5 for 26 – but the Pirates also were outrebounded 43-36.
Wheaton did a good job of getting extra possessions with offensive rebounds,” Logie said. “Francis created shots for his teammates and we didn’t make enough plays to turn the tide.”
The Thunder stretched the margin to 60-50 on back-to-back baskets by Kobe Eickelberger. Still down 71-62 with 7:43 to play, Whitworth rallied to within 78-77 on Jared Christy’s three-point play with just more than 3 minutes to go.
However, the Thunder held the Pirates scoreless over the next two minutes and went back up 84-77 on a Francis jumper with 1:11 to go, all but clinching the game.
Whitworth started strongly, leading 11-3 after 4 minutes and 15-9 on Ben Bishop’s slam off a nice feed from Lester.
Francis responded with a 3-pointer from the corner and a scoop in the lane to start a 27-8 rally over the next 9 minutes. With 6 minutes left in the half, Francis had 13 points and four assists and Whitworth trailed 36-23.
The game was the first of five consecutive at home for the Pirates, who will host the Whitworth Men’s Classic on Dec. 29 and 30 against Wisconsin-Stout and Calvin.
The Pirates open Northwest Conference play at home on Dec. 5 against Lewis & Clark and Dec. 6 against Pacific.