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Whitworth players look back and ahead after basketball season cut short

UPDATED: Mon., March 23, 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

As much as Ben College is trying to avoid it, the “what-if” of the Whitworth men’s basketball season is difficult to dodge.

What if the Pirates had gotten their shot at top-ranked Swarthmore in the Division III Tournament as scheduled two Saturdays ago?

“Maybe we run into Swarthmore and it turns out they’re a better team than us and we lose,” College said by phone from his family’s home in Portland. “Sometimes that’s easier to accept than thinking about all the what-ifs. On the other hand, we’re on a hot streak right now with a lot of momentum, and I think we had a real great shot at taking about anybody down in the country.”

But that Sweet 16 game against the Garnet was canceled, along with the rest of the college sports world, in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, so the Pirates had to settle for ending their season with a victory.

“If you can keep focusing on the fact that we won our last game, that helps a little,” College said.

It was a remarkable season for Whitworth, not simply because of the unprecedented manner in which it ended. Under first-year head coach Damion Jablonski the Pirates went 23-6, winning at least 20 games for the 15th consecutive season. They reached the Sweet 16 of the D-III tournament for the first time since 2011.

The Pirates were 19th in the final rankings, and the site recognized Jablonski as the West Region’s Coach of the Year

Whitworth’s style changed slightly: It trimmed 6 points from both its offensive and defensive scoring from a year ago, when it went 21-6 overall and missed the NCAA Tournament.

But again the Pirates were propelled by accurate shooting, and for the second straight year ranked in the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage (49.5 this year, 51.2 a season ago).

A big reason for the team’s success was the senior guard College. The program’s second-ranked all-time scoring leader (1,863 points) and its best career free-throw shooter (88.4%), College made a school record 99 (of 232 attempted) 3-pointers this season and led the Northwest Conference in scoring at 22.9 points per game.

He was named the NWC’s Player of the Year and last week was picked as a D-III third team All-America selection by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, among various other honors.

College, who is finishing up four classes online this spring, is one of Whitworth’s three departing seniors, along with forward Sam Lees (12.5 points per game) and guard Garrett Hull (9.3), who ranked third and fourth on the team in scoring this season.

From an offensive production standpoint, that leaves plenty for the Pirates to replace.

But junior Isaiah Hernandez did not expect that to be an unsolvable problem.

“I’m excited about what we have coming back, especially that group of sophomores who already had a huge impact,” Hernandez said. “I expect them to make a pretty good jump.”

Hernandez said he has been texting with Jordan Lester, a senior whom the team expects to have back next season after this one ended prematurely. Before his injury in the team’s fifth game, Lester was averaging 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds.

“With Jordan coming back, that’s another All-Conference, All-America (talent),” Hernandez said.

As for those sophomores, they were led – especially late in the year – by 6-foot-6 forward Liam Fitzgerald, who played all but 5 of the team’s 80 playoff minutes and proved to be difficult for teams to defend: He made 28 of 65 (43.1%) of his 3-point attempts and steadily increased his scoring average through the season, to 8.1 points per game.

That he has another year to look forward to made the unexpected conclusion to this one easier for Hernandez to bear, he said.

“The what-ifs still linger, and I’m sick for my seniors,” Hernandez said. “But the last few days I’ve been able to accept it and hope we can put together another run next year.”

College, who said he hopes to play in Europe next fall, will get no such chance. The team hasn’t yet held its usual season-ending meetings between each player and the coaching staff, and College said the team hasn’t experienced the closure of past campaigns.

“We normally have an end-of-season banquet around this time, so that’s when all the seniors give a small speech and then we reflect on the season,” College said. “So that’s a fun event that we didn’t get to do.

“It’s gonna take a little while at least for me because I am so used to gearing up for another season. It’s a little bit different.”

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