There won’t be a Northwest Conference championship trophy awarded this year, but during Sunday afternoon’s game at the Fieldhouse it sure felt as if there was something significant on the line.
The Whitworth men’s basketball team completed a weekend sweep of the Pacific Lutheran Lutes with a 81-76 victory, securing the best record among the NWC’s four teams in Washington.
“It was an intense game,” Pirates coach Damion Jablonski said. “Both teams were treating it like a championship, there’s no question about it. I heard those words come right out of their players’ mouths.”
After a quiet night in the Pirates’ 64-48 victory on Saturday night, junior post Liam Fitzgerald led the Pirates with 21 points, a career high, on 8-of-11 shooting on Sunday, including a 3-for-5 effort from 3-point range.
“They made a concerted effort of taking away a lot of the post play we were able to get advantages out of last night, so I think it opened up some things on the perimeter,” Jablonski said. “I’m proud of Liam, I’m proud of (Garrett Paxton), and Kea (Vargas) for knocking down shots and taking what came to them.”
Then there was freshman Brad Lackey, who played 29 minutes off the bench largely in relief of starting point guard Rowan Anderson, who was saddled with fouls much of the game and limited to 15 minutes.
Lackey shot 7 of 11 from the field and finished with 20 points, three shy of his season high.
“He’s a really good young player, and he’s gonna be great in our program,” Jablonski said of Lackey. “This experience is just gonna be able to propel him to a higher level when we come back next year.”
Juniors Paxton (13 points) and Vargas (10), as well as senior Miguel Lopez (11), gave the Pirates periodic bursts of scoring as they held off the Lutes, who earlier in the season handed the Pirates one of their two NWC defeats.
“Going back to the last time we played them a couple weeks ago, it was a big part of the season for our team,” Lackey said. “Then it came time to play them again, and we knew we needed to bring the intensity, not take possessions off and play 40 minutes, and we did that in both games.”
The Pirates trailed early, but a 10-0 run keyed by back-to-back 3s from Lackey and Paxton gave Whitworth a 31-27 lead with 6:14 left in the first half. Later, though, an 11-2 run gave the Lutes a 41-39 lead at half.
Vargas and Paxton drained consecutive 3-pointers midway through the second half for a 60-50 Whitworth lead, the first double-digit advantage for either team.
Just once the Lutes pulled within a possession the rest of the game, and Whitworth sank its last six free-throw attempts in the final minute to hold off PLU.
The victory improved Whitworth’s overall record to 12-5 and its NWC mark to 10-2 with two games against Whitman (5-5, 3-5 NWC) next weekend that will cap the season. PLU finished the year 7-3 overall and in conference play, with all three losses against Whitworth.
Seth Hall led the Lutes with 20 points, and Thomas had 16 points to go with six rebounds.
Starting next weekend and running through May 1, three of the NWC’s five Oregon schools – George Fox, Pacific and Linfield – are scheduled to play each other four times apiece, just as the Washington schools planned. Willamette and Lewis & Clark opted out of the 2020-21 basketball season.
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