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Whitworth faces NCAA Division III challenge against high-scoring Nate West of LeTourneau

UPDATED: Thu., March 5, 2020

Whitworth guard Ben College (4) shoots an under-handed layup during the second half of a college basketball game, Mon., Dec. 16, 2019, at Whitworth University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth guard Ben College (4) shoots an under-handed layup during the second half of a college basketball game, Mon., Dec. 16, 2019, at Whitworth University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Just a few hours after learning he and the Whitworth Pirates would be headed to Texas to play LeTourneau in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament, Ben College was already rattling off Nate West’s statistics.

Multiple games with 10 assists (six). Nine games with 30 points, another one with 47 and even a 67-point effort earlier this year, setting a single-game American Southwest Conference record.

So yes, the Whitworth senior guard was already quite aware of his LeTourneau counterpart, who, like College, was his conference’s player of the year this season.

“It’s not just scoring. It’s playmaking. He can do a little bit of everything,” College said of the 5-foot-10 West. “Obviously, (he is) an incredible player and somebody we’ll definitely have to key on.”

LeTourneau, 23-5 overall and champion of the ASC Tournament, presents a novel challenge for Whitworth (21-6). They play at 3 p.m. Friday at the University of Texas-Dallas Activities Center. It is the first time the programs’ men’s basketball teams have played.

Whitworth’s Northwest Conference rival Whitman is their only common opponent this season, but that’s not much to draw from, Pirates coach Damion Jablonski said, because Whitman’s style is so unique.

It was notable to Jablonski that the YellowJackets beat the Blues 111-105, something the Pirates did just once in three tries this season.

West was a big reason the YellowJackets won that game: He had 30 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in a near-triple-double effort (he achieved that feat three times this season) as part of a late-December tournament in Belton, Texas.

On the season, West averages 27.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and a Division III-best 7.4 assists per game.

“Nate West is a heck of a player,” Jablonski said.

LeTourneau junior guard Justin Moore contributed 13.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game this season, and freshman center John Argue is averaging 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds.

College said they would scout the YellowJackets as they would any team, but there are limitations to that, given just that one common opponent.

“It’s kind of a quick turnaround with a team we’ve never played before, so I think it’s gonna be important to focus on us and what we do,” said College, who led the NWC with 22.4 points per game. “It’s different than a conference game, more like a Wooster-type game or a St. Thomas-type of game earlier this season. You’re just not as familiar with your opponent.”

Wooster (21-7) and St. Thomas (24-3) are hosting opening-round pods this weekend in the tournament. The Pirates beat St. Thomas 85-64 in November at the Whitworth Fieldhouse and lost 87-82 at Wooster six weeks later.

Situations like these are another reason why Jablonski loaded up the Pirates’ nonnconference schedule with difficult road games.

“I think playing the different styles that we did going to the Midwest was huge,” Jablonski said. “The teams down in our bracket are pretty athletic teams, a couple that have some big interior strength, and we saw some opponents like that in the Midwest. I think that the ‘noncon’ schedule should have prepared us to play different styles.”

Should the Pirates get past LeTourneau, they would face on Saturday the winner of Friday’s other game between UT-Dallas (21-6) – the pod’s host and an at-large pick from the same conference as LeTourneau – and Centenary (18-9), which won the Southern Collegiate Athletics Conference.

The Pirates have twice gone to Texas for the NCAA Tournament in the last decade. In 2014, Whitworth beat Trinity (Texas) 75-73 and lost in the second round to UT-Dallas 78-77 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime.

In 2012, the Pirates won twice in Belton, Texas, to advance to the Sweet 16.

In 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, Whitworth is 12-13. It has reached the Sweet 16 four times since 2009 and once the Elite Eight, in 2011.

But the Pirates have lost in the opening round three straight postseason appearances: to Claremont Mudd-Scripps in 2018 and 2017, and to Whitman in 2016.

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