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Whitworth women take on unbeaten George Fox

Whitworth's Lexie Zappone (22) is fourth on the team in scoring and first in steals. (Colin Mulvany)
Whitworth's Lexie Zappone (22) is fourth on the team in scoring and first in steals. (Colin Mulvany)
The Whitworth women’s basketball team is facing the biggest game of the year as No. 3 George Fox comes to Spokane tonight to dance with the No. 19 Pirates on their home turf. These two teams have history. Last season, Whitworth went 3-1 against the Bruins, including beating George Fox by 19 points in the Northwest Conference tournament at the Bruins’ home in Newberg, Oregon. That earned the Pirates the chance to beat the Bruins again by 20 points in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament in Walla Walla. This year, the Pirates (19-2, 10-2) were undefeated when they went on the road to play George Fox on Jan. 17. The Bruins (21-0, 12-0) mauled the Pirates 44-13 in the first half and won 70-39. “I think we were in the 20s in shooting percentage (24.6) and they were in the 50s (55.3),” coach Helen Higgs said. “We pretty much flushed that game right after it happened. We are going to have to go in believing that we can win it.” With a victory, the Pirates would reach 20 wins on the final weekend at home for five academic seniors, including starting guards Lexie Zappone, Kendra Knutsen and forward Katara Belton-Sharp, who are all from Spokane. “If you play 25 games (and win 20), that means you’ve won 80 percent of your games,” Higgs said. “That’s always a bench mark of a high-quality team.” While Knutsen (Shadle Park) and Belton-Sharp (Ferris) have exhausted their eligibility, Zappone (Lakeside-Nine Mile Falls) has one more year if she chooses to pay for it. “That’s my biggest recruiting job right now,” Higgs said. “She leaves it all out there when she plays. She has a determination that you can’t really teach.” Zappone ranks fourth on the team in scoring (9.8 points) and she leads the team in steals. Belton-Sharp is tied for second on the team in scoring (10.2 points) and she averages 5.4 rebounds a game. Knutsen leads the team with 63 assists. “Katara is the one who holds everyone, including herself, accountable,” Higgs said. “Kendra is a great defender and a great distributor of the ball. She’s super at making everybody better around her.” Whitworth and George Fox have secured places in the four-team conference tournament along with No. 22 Puget Sound (18-3, 9-3) and Whitman (14-7, 9-3), which lost the national championship game last season. The four remaining games will determine the seeds, which become important because the top two teams play opening-round games at home, Higgs said. To beat George Fox, the Pirates will have to find a way to slow down the hottest-shooting team in the conference. “We have to make them take the toughest shots we can. It’s pretty simple, on paper,” Higgs said. “Anytime you get to play those teams that are ranked in the top five and are undefeated, it’s a fun opportunity.” Regardless of how Whitworth fares, the Pirates have to turn around and play fifth-place Pacific (Oregon) (9-12, 5-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday on Senior Night. “I’m a coach so everybody scares me,” Higgs said. “The players have to forget about (George Fox) by the time they wake up on Saturday and move on.”
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