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After losing its first three games, Whitworth basketball has turned things around with four straight wins

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 28, 2021

Whitworth basketball player Miguel Lopez watches game film of Northwest Conference rival Puget Sound with head coach Damion Jablonski on Tuesday inside the Whitworth University Field House.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Whitworth basketball player Miguel Lopez watches game film of Northwest Conference rival Puget Sound with head coach Damion Jablonski on Tuesday inside the Whitworth University Field House. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

A season ago, the Whitworth men’s basketball team won 23 games, including a pair in the Division III national tournament.

It did so with better team defense than previous teams while also sporting the Northwest Conference’s Player of the Year in Ben College, the program’s fifth such honoree in the past seven seasons.

Despite a good deal of turnover, junior JT McDermott thinks this year’s Pirates – riding a four-game winning streak – can be better than that squad.

Or, short of that, equal to it, although with a much different look.

“Yes. I don’t know. I think we are (better),” McDermott said. “It’s hard to compare the team last year to this year, because almost everyone is different in the starting lineup besides Liam (Fitzgerald). We’re a completely different team.”

The Pirates (4-3 overall, 2-0 NWC) are expected to start four different players Friday and Saturday against Pacific Lutheran (2-0, 2-0) than when the teams last met at the Fieldhouse, in the semifinals of last year’s NWC Tournament. The Pirates won that game and have won 32 straight in the series.

Aside from senior transfer Miguel Lopez, the team’s leading scorer, the rest of the Pirates’ starters are juniors. That quartet – which all came in together as freshmen – is helping to carry the Pirates.

“They’re great teammates, and they also as a class are very versatile,” Pirates head coach Damion Jablonski said. “We’ve got a really great shooter (Garrett Paxton), we’ve got a really great point guard (Rowan Anderson), a wing (Fitzgerald) and an interior presence (McDermott), so they complement each other really well.”

Paxton leads the team in 3-point shooting, hitting 15 of 36, and is averaging 13.1 points per game.

Anderson, after playing the 10th-most minutes on the team a year ago (278), has played the most (237) for the Pirates through seven games this season, pressed into starting duty with senior Isaiah Hernandez injured. Anderson has two more assists this year (50) than last, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4) is a full assist better.

McDermott has nearly doubled his scoring (from 4.8 to 8.1 per game). Fitzgerald continues to be versatile, with the team’s most steals (16), second-most rebounds (36), and third-most 3-pointers made (10 of 26).

As a team, the Pirates are up 1.2 steals, on average, and are assisting on three more baskets (17) per game over last year.

Their scoring margin is about half what it was, down to plus-5.7 from plus-11, but the Pirates have mostly played higher-level competition this year, with just two games against other D-III teams.

“I think it looks very, very different, playing a different assortment of guys,” Paxton said.

“I think we’re getting up in transition more this year, I think our defense is a lot more focused, oriented about getting stops and getting out in transition. Defensively, we’re definitely a better team this year for sure.”

After beating Puget Sound twice last weekend, the Pirates are beginning a stretch of six consecutive home games – their entire home conference slate – before closing out the NWC regular season with four road games. They are scheduled to play four games apiece against Puget Sound, Whitman and Pacific Lutheran.

PLU may just be their closest competition: Last weekend, the Lutes beat Whitman two nights in a row in the season openers for both teams. Senior Seth Hall averages a conference-best 18 points per game for PLU.

Jablonski is hopeful that Hernandez, the Pirates’ second-leading scorer last year (13.0 points per game), will return soon.

But it looks likely Whitworth will be without him again this weekend.

“It’ll give us another ball handler, another leader on the court,” McDermott said. “When we get Isaiah (Hernandez) back, it’s not gonna hurt us.”

But in his absence, the team’s core of juniors has stepped up.

“Every time I step on the floor with those guys, it’s definitely special and a different sense of confidence and morale when we’re playing together,” Paxton said. “There’s definitely a sense of pride to be together and compete with your brothers.”

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