Whitworth can avenge its only loss and earn a spot in the Sweet 16 Saturday night as it faces a familiar foe, No. 11 Whitman, in the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
The Missionaries (24-3) ruined No. 3 Whitworth’s run at perfection earlier this season when they plundered the Pirates 87-71 on Feb. 2 at Walla Walla.
Whitman advanced to Saturday by defeating Chapman 91-84 on Thursday in a first-round game at home. All five Whitman starters scored in double figures to earn a chance to cross swords one more time with the Pirates (26-1) at Whitworth Fieldhouse.
“Whitman plays a really aggressive, fast-paced style,” Pirates’ coach Matt Logie said. “Our guys are familiar with their system and personnel.”
Whitman’s pressure defense forced 20 Chapman turnovers that the Missionaries converted into 28 points. But Whitworth has four starters who can handle the ball and the Pirates only gave up 11 and 12 turnovers, respectively, in their two games.
However, the biggest difference between Whitworth’s 95-89 win at home on Jan. 5 and the thumping the Pirates took at Walla Walla, was shooting. The Pirates hit 57 percent of their shots — which was the second-best percentage of the season — during the win, and its worst shooting night (36.5 percent) in the loss.
“Those four-on-three breaks, we didn’t convert them in the second game,” junior guard Kenny Love said. “We had a lot of rushed shots. We just got out of poise and that ended up costing us.”
Logie said the Missionaries started strong in the second game, which left the Pirates chasing the lead the entire night. Whitman started the game with a 9-0 run, and then put together a 13-0 run to begin the second half.
“I thought the difference was that six-minute time period at the beginning of each half,” Logie said, “where we didn’t execute really well. That put us in a hole that was difficult to overcome.”
Love said the team hasn’t really planned to attack the Missionaries any differently the third game.
“I just think the key will be to stay engaged defensively,” Love said. “Offensively, we’ll be fine. But anytime we’ve been in trouble it’s because of a lack of defensive focus.”
Whitworth uses defensive stops to fuel its transition game. But the Pirates are equally adept in slowing the game down, setting up the half-court offense and feeding the ball to its big three scorers, senior forward George Valle (16.3 points), junior wing Christian Jurlina (14.6 points) or Love (14.4 points).
But to advance, the Pirates must neutralize the highest scoring team in the Northwest Conference.
The Missionaries averaged 91.3 points per game. They are led by sophomore guards Tim Howell (19.1 points) and Christian McDonald (14.4 points), and a half dozen other players could score in double digits on any given night.
The key to winning “is more about consistency: taking care of the ball and getting stops,” Logie said. “Our focus is to go out and play Whitworth basketball for 40 minutes. When we’ve been able to do that, we’re pretty good.”
The Pirates are playing in their 10th consecutive NCAA tournament. Whitworth is 12-10 all time in the tournament and four times have lost to the eventual national champions. The last two seasons, the Pirates suffered one-point losses in the second round.
But their regular-season success earned them a first-round bye and a chance to play at home, where the Pirates have won 27-consecutive games.
“It’s a great opportunity to play at home and win a game against an opponent we know well,” Logie said, “and advance to the Sweet 16.”