In an epic postseason struggle between two basketball teams, the No. 11 Whitman Missionaries somehow found just enough magic to take down No. 3 Whitworth 88-86 Saturday night on the Pirates’ home court.
Both teams shot the exact same 55.9 percent from the floor. They traded the lead eight times and tied it 13 times. But Whitman’s Christian McDonald elevated and got his shot to go with one second remaining to send the Missionaries (24-4) into the NCAA Division III tournament’s Sweet 16.
“Whitworth has had such a stranglehold on our conference for so long,” Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland said after the game. “To break through that, to beat a champion at their own place … I don’t have words to describe that.”
McDonald’s heroics came just moments after Whitworth’s Kenny Love threw up a desperation 3-pointer to tie the game at 86 with 14 seconds to play. But Bridgeland drew up a play for McDonald, and the sophomore guard delivered.
“I just watched. I had no idea,” whether the shot was true, McDonald said. “It was pure joy.”
The shot left a packed Whitworth Fieldhouse stunned and the defeated players in tears.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys,” coach Matt Logie said. “Obviously, it’s disappointing. But they left every ounce of themselves out there.”
The loss ends a 27-game home winning streak for the Pirates (26-2), who have fallen for the third consecutive season in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
While McDonald scored 22 for Whitman, the star of the game was clearly Tim Howell.
He hit 1-of-8 shots in the first half. But he torched the Pirates with 12-of-17 shooting in the second half, including scoring seven consecutive baskets during one stretch. He led all scorers with 32 points.
“In that first half, I kind of struggled a little bit,” Howell said. “In the second half, I knew I had to turn it on to get the win.”
McDonald and Howell ended the run of senior George Valle, who led Whitworth with 26 points after having started every one of his 116 games as a Pirate.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better four years of college basketball,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe it’s over. But, it’s been a lot of fun.”
The game started with a raucous crowd and two confident teams playing to their strengths.
Valle found a streaking Drew Sears with a lob pass and the 6-foot-10 center laid it in to open the game that sparked the crowd to shake the fieldhouse.
But McDonald immediately answered with a 3-pointer and the teams turned the game into an out-of control grass fire.
Whitworth’s transition game was dynamic and the Pirates opened 14-point lead after Kyle Roach got a steal and went coast-to-coast to make it 31-17.
But Whitman’s McDonald and Evan Martin, who finished with 16 points and six rebounds, fueled a comeback. Austin Butler scored with one second before halftime, which ended with a 46-43 Whitworth lead.
The teams traded blows in the second half, and Howell then scored seven consecutive baskets to give the Missionaries a 59-57 lead. Love then tied it with a layup with 13:08 to play.
“Kenny Love is so good,” Bridgeland said. “The respect we have for him is through the roof.”
Whitman then built its largest lead of the night when Martin got a layup to make the score 75-70. Love then hit two consecutive 3-pointers to retake the lead at 76-75.
The teams kept knotting the score and trading the lead to the bitter end, when McDonald’s shot ended Whitworth’s season. Whitman now advances to play St. Thomas, which beat Elmhurst 73-63 on Saturday.
For Whitworth, Christian Jurlina scored 13 points. Love had 20 and seven rebounds. Sears scored 10 points and also had seven rebounds, and Roach scored nine.
Logie said the players followed the script on defense against the conference’s top-scoring offense.
“We forced them to take tough 2-point shots,” Logie said, “and they made them. They made some difficult shots in the second half, and that was the difference.”
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