TACOMA – Despite a stellar regular season, there was no guarantee the Whitworth University men’s basketball team was going to be invited to the NCAA Division III tournament.
If you ask Pirates coach Jim Hayford, he definitely didn’t believe his team would get the call Monday when selections were handed out had Whitworth failed to win the Northwest Conference tournament.
“The NCAA doesn’t recognize Spokane as being a part of the United States,” Hayford said. “There was no way we get in if we lose.”
It took overtime to accomplish it, but Hayford and his players no longer have to worry about receiving an at-large bid.
Ross Nakamura scored a game-high 24 points, Nate Montgomery added 18 points and 18 rebounds, and sophomore David Riley hit a trio of huge 3-pointers down the stretch to help the Pirates knock off third-ranked Puget Sound 90-80 in overtime Saturday in the NWC tournament finals at Memorial Fieldhouse.
The victory automatically secures Whitworth a place in the national tournament.
“It just speaks volumes of how much character this team has,” Hayford said. “To come into a hostile environment, plagued by fouls and playing the third-ranked team in the country who hadn’t lost at home this year, it’s unbelievable.”
UPS, which despite the defeat will likely receive a tournament bid, brought a 19-game winning streak into the contest and was the first team to go 16-0 in conference play.
The Loggers (24-3) almost made it 20 straight when they were able to overcome an 11-point deficit in the final 7 minutes of regulation to send it into the extra session.
UPS took its only lead of the second half (70-69) on a 3-pointer by Robert Kruel with 39 seconds to play.
Riley fired right back for the Pirates, draining a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left, which gave Whitworth (22-5) a 72-70 advantage. The Loggers got an Austin Boyce field goal to close out the scoring in regulation and again tie it up.
Riley continued to hit from beyond the 3-point line in overtime, sinking a pair, including one during a game-deciding 10-1 run by the Pirates.
“I don’t think there was a time when we didn’t believe we weren’t going to win,” said Riley, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half and overtime. “Once I hit that first 3, it really helped with the confidence. I was just trying to make some plays and help the seniors. I wasn’t ready for this season to end. I want to play some more games with these guys.”
The teams went into the locker rooms tied at 34 at the half. It was quite a different scenario for the Pirates compared to their two regular-season losses to the Loggers as Whitworth fell behind by double digits early in both games – deficits they were unable to overcome.
This time around, however, the biggest first-half hole Whitworth faced was six points after UPS used a 9-0 run to grab its largest lead of the opening session at 16-10 with 11:41 remaining in the half.
“I think that was a huge difference tonight,” Hayford said about his team not being down at the half. “In the first two meetings it was over by the half. Tonight we knew we had a great shot at winning this because we were able to stick to the game plan the entire game. We weren’t able to do that the other times.”
Whitworth, behind the long-range shooting of Nakamura, chipped away at the Loggers’ advantage and reclaimed the lead at 34-33 on a Nakamura 10-foot jumper from the top of the lane with 63 seconds left.
Nakamura, whose 30-foot heave at the end of the first half rattled around before rimming out, hit 6 of 8 shots from the field in the opening 20 minutes, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.
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