The Whitworth Pirates are in playoff mode.
The switch – along with the momentum in Saturday’s home game against Willamette – was flipped midway through the second half.
It began with Garrett Hull’s driving layin, followed by Kevin Crosno’s 3-pointer and another layin from Sam Lees that gave the Pirates a 16-point lead and ultimately a 76-60 win over the Bearcats.
“I think that was a major game-changer,” Hull said after the game. “That got us going, and of course we have pretty good shooters all around.”
Now the fourth-ranked Pirates will shoot for a deep run in the postseason, beginning with the Northwest Conference semifinals. Second-seeded Whitworth will host No. 3 Puget Sound on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Whitworth (22-3 overall, 14-2 in the NWC) figures to earn a berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament, either by winning the NWC’s automatic berth or as an at-large team.
That’s become a tradition for the Pirates, who on Saturday not only honored lone senior Joel Gabriele but also capped a remarkable year that would be a rebuild for most programs.
Then again, as coach Matt Logie says, “Tradition never graduates.”
Despite the loss of four starters from last year’s team and the addition of 10 new players, the Pirates jelled.
“I’m really proud of this group,” said Logie, now in his seventh year. “We had some good pieces coming back but we were putting a whole new puzzle together.
“It’s been fun to watch them grow.”
On Saturday, the fun didn’t happen until the second half.
Seventh-place Willamette (11-14, 6-10) came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude that was reflected in a 62-percent shooting average in the first half.
The Bearcats also had a 20-11 rebounding advantage at intermission, which probably left the Pirates feeling fortunate to be trailing by only 36-34.
“In the first half our defense was a little off,” Hull said. “But then we focused on the coaches’ plan in the second half.”
Roach, facing a steady diet of double-teams, was held to seven points, but Hull and Ben College (20 points on 8-for-16 shooting) picked up the slack.
Roach, who averages 19 points, had no points at halftime.
“I’d put my focus on Kyle too,” Hull said. “But we have a lot of players who can step up, so it doesn’t faze us.”
The Pirates also got 12 points from Crosno, who got all of them by going 4 for 5 from beyond the arc.
The game also marked Senior Night, with Gabriele getting the start. Gabriele played the first three minutes, then returned in the final minutes.
Gabriele had two steals, then hit a free throw in the final minute to a earn cheers from the crowd of 978 fans.
Both teams finished below .500 from the foul line, a rarity at the college level, Willamette was 4 for 9 and Whitworth went 6 for 14.
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