Whitworth University’s men’s basketball team is still in the process of figuring out how to deal with the abundance of offensive weapons at its disposal.
But Jim Hayford seems willing to give his Pirates (3-2) some time to sort things out – as long as they keep showing the kind of improvement they did in Friday night’s home-opening 80-53 win over the University of California Santa Cruz (2-7) at Whitworth Fieldhouse.
“What I’m really pleased about is that we’ve looked better each weekend,” the Pirates’ ninth-year head coach said after watching David Riley rediscover his shooting stroke and throw in a team-high 17 points as one of four Bucs to finish in double figures. “We will be a really good basketball team in January and February, but we still haven’t come together, yet.”
That might come as a bit of a surprise to UCSC, which lost to Whitworth 81-75 in the UPS Tip Off in Tacoma earlier this season, because the Banana Slugs certainly had no answer for the Pirates’ scoring balance on this night.
Along with Riley’s big effort, the Bucs got 15 points from Bo Gregg, 11 from Jack Loofburrow and 10 from Felix Friedt, who was making his first start of the year at center.
But it was Riley’s contribution that was so satisfying, considering the 6-foot-5 junior forward and last year’s leading scorer came into the game averaging just more than eight points after having made only 12 of 42 basket tries – and only 6 of 26 3-point attempts.
Against UCSC, Riley knocked down 6 of 9 shots from the field, including 3 of 5 tries from 3-point range.
“Tonight was much more characteristic of Dave,” Hayford said. “He came out this season with a big target on his chest, being arguably one of the two or three best returning (NCAA Division III) players on the West Coast, and teams have taken pride in guarding him and going after him.
“I think he’s going to do better with that target as the season wears on, but it was still kind of surprising to see him struggle like he did in those first few games.”
Riley said it felt good to finally get back in some kind of shooting rhythm.
“Coach Hayford has been telling me to keep shooting,” he said. “So he’s still got confidence in me, and I’ve always had confidence in myself. It was good to see shots finally falling out there.”
Whitworth seemed ready to put UCSC away early, racing to a 22-10 lead behind the outside shooting of Riley, who scored eight points in the Bucs’ early charge. But the Banana Slugs started finding – and knocking down – some open shots midway through the first half and closed to within 31-29 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Kevin Konopelski just a little more than a minute prior to intermission.
The Pirates still managed to carve out a semi-comfortable halftime lead, however, closing the period with five unanswered points on a 3-pointer by Loofburrow and a pair of free throws by Clay Gebbers. And they put the game away with a 16-5 run to open the second half.
“We just don’t know how to play together yet, with all of these offensive weapons,” Riley said of the Bucs’ unimpressive first-half effort. “We have so many guys that can off for 20 on any night … we just have to figure it out.”
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