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Whitworth would be thrilled for a road trip next

The Whitworth Pirates are in uncharted waters, even more so because they’re at home.

Tonight’s NCAA Division III men’s basketball third-round playoff game against Mary Hardin-Baylor figures to be one of the biggest sports events ever contested north of Francis Avenue, a fact not lost on the Pirates.

“To be able to host a Sweet 16 game is unbelievable,” athletic director Aaron Leetch said. “We know this is a unique year, and that this opportunity is not going to come our way very often.”

That’s because at the Division III level, the NCAA’s emphasis on cost-cutting has forced some of the best Whitworth teams on the road – until now.

Not coincidentally, the Sweet 16 has usually turned out a bit sour for the Pirates, who are 1-3 in that round. A little home cooking might change that.

Said Whitworth coach Matt Logie, “This is a credit to the players and coaches who’ve come before who never had this opportunity to play at home, so we hope to stand up strong.”

So will some of the fans, because even if the stage is a little larger, the venue isn’t. Whitworth Fieldhouse has an official capacity of 1,620, but the addition of temporary bleachers pushed attendance to 1,745 for last week’s 86-67 playoff win over Emory. Standing-room spots will be available, “but we’re very cautious about that,” Leetch said.

“This is something that is so special,” Leetch added. “But if fans want to be a part of that atmosphere, I suggest they get here early.”

Except for season-ticket holders, all seats are first-come, first-served. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.

Once the game begins, the sellout crowd will try to send the sixth-ranked Pirates to the Elite Eight for only the second time on school history. The winner of tonight’s game will play Friday in Salem, Va., against either St. Mary’s of Maryland or Morrisville State of New York.

First, the Pirates must get past Mary Hardin-Baylor, a team they defeated 70-61 in November at the Fieldhouse. Going into that game, Whitworth was 0-2, albeit against Division I Idaho State and St. Thomas, the current No. 1-ranked team in Division III.

The win was the first of 20 straight for the Pirates, who are 26-3 and ranked sixth nationally. Mary Hardin-Baylor is 24-5 but unranked, and plays the same fast-paced style as Emory.

“It’s nice to have some familiarity,” Logie said. “There are so many questions that have been answered since that game, for our team and I’m sure for theirs as well.”

The Crusaders thrived in transition during a 117-92 win over Concordia (Texas). “They push the ball extremely hard in transition,” Logie said. “And they have athletic players who can attack the offensive glass.”

Mary Hardin-Baylor doesn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-5, but is getting 12.1 points and 10.2 rebounds a game from 6-4 junior forward Kitrick Bell. Wing Thomas Orr averages a team-high 14.4 points.

“We’re going to have to spring back in transition,” Whitworth guard Dustin McConnell said. “If they face a set defense, that’s going to make a difference for us.”

Logie said the Pirates are peaking at the right time, especially on defense, but that there’s always room for improvement. That includes cutting down on some “careless” turnovers that allowed Emory to get back in the game with 5 minutes left, and improving offensive rebounding.

“Overall we’re playing at our best and we want to keep playing with confidence,” Logie said.

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