The Whitworth men’s basketball team had little need for formal introductions this year.
The Pirates feature a starting five of two graduates and three seniors, a veteran group driving the team’s 6-1 start to the season. Whitworth, which hosts rival Whitman tonight at 8 at the Fieldhouse, tipped off its Northwest Conference slate on Saturday with a 94-81 victory at Willamette.
“We’ve had a good amount of returning experience, and it’s coming together really well,” head coach Damion Jablonski said. “Thus far we’ve kind of developed an identity and been tough and gritty on defense. The offense has been making strides over the last few weeks.”
The Pirates’ scoring balance is remarkable. Graduate student-athlete Miguel Lopez, a 6-foot-4 forward, and senior guard Garrett Paxton average 12.3 and 11.4 points per game, respectively. Senior Liam Fitzgerald and graduate Jordan Lester average 10.9 points a night, and sixth man JT McDermott, a 6-6 senior forward, averages 10.4.
“We pride ourselves on being an unselfish team,” Jablonski said. “We average 22 assists a game, so I’ve got a lot of different tools in my tool belt, if you will. On a given night we’re pretty difficult to game-plan against because it could be a number of different guys stepping up and contributing.”
Paxton has played in 66 games, the most on the roster, and started in 24 during his career. Lester has started all 47 games he’s played, a team high.
The Pirates’ half-dozen graduates and seniors have combined for 299 games played and 163 starts. That is a considerable accumulation of knowledge and on-court experience to complement the efforts of Jablonski and his coaching staff.
Whitworth’s third-year coach said he has taken note of the way the older players hold their younger teammates accountable.
“These guys have been through the fire before,” he said. “Obviously everybody had a difficult year last year (due to the pandemic). The seniors want to capitalize on this opportunity. And you do see their experience play out in different ways. It may be little ways like making sure everybody is taking the stretching routine seriously or taking the cooldown routine seriously.
“This year I’ve noticed that guys are doing the little things and not taking it for granted. That is a direct correlation to the good number of veterans we have who want to make the most of the season.”
Jablonski credited a challenging nonconference slate for preparing the Pirates for NWC play. Whitworth split a pair of games on a road trip to Wisconsin last month. UW-Platteville, ranked third in the D3hoops.com Top 25 poll released Sunday, built a 20-point lead at halftime en route to a 90-69 win over the Pirates on Nov. 12. Whitworth rebounded the following night, however, with an 80-79 win at UW-Whitewater.
“That trip was huge,” Jablonski said. “Those are really tough teams, very physical teams both of them. I thought it said a lot about the guys’ character to be able to bounce back from getting one handed to us to having to grit out another game.
“We try to schedule the way we do to give guys an opportunity to learn and grow, and sometimes that means you take some losses. But in the very early computer rankings, we are No. 1 in RPI in the country. We’re scheduling a tough nonconference schedule so guys can grow.”
The Pirates represent the lone NWC program in the D3hoops poll – unranked Linfield picked up five votes – but conference teams’ familiarity with one another often renders rankings meaningless.
“I think that was demonstrated last year when we were playing back-to-back Friday-Saturday games against the same opponent in conference and how difficult it was to win both of those games,” Jablonski said. “Every single game has the same weight to it in terms of trying to win a conference championship. Teams are ready to take it to you when they know that much about you.”
Perhaps no two programs in the league are more familiar with each other than Whitworth and Whitman. During a span covering the 2011-12 through 2019-20 seasons, those two teams finished 1-2 atop the conference standings in eight of those nine years (the Blues were third in 2019-20). The Pirates collected six NWC regular-season titles and Whitman three in that stretch.
“I think both programs over the last decade have really been driven and in a lot of ways pushed each other to grow and be able to compete at a national level,” Jablonski said. “The rivalry has been really healthy for both schools over that time.”
Whitman, which lost five of its first six games before routing Willamette 99-70 on Friday, hoists 32 3-point attempts a game and boasts three guards – juniors Walter Lum and Nikola Trifunovic and sophomore Xzavier Lino – who are particularly dangerous from distance. That trio has combined for 51 3-pointers, one fewer than Whitworth has made as a team.
“I think they do a good job running their system,” Jablonski said, “and our guys have to really be locked in and just maintain what our identity has been, being tough and focused on the defensive end and playing together and helping each other out.”
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