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Whitworth men headed to Midwest for games against teams that ‘grind out possessions’

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 11, 2021

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

After sweeping a pair of games to open its season, the Whitworth men’s basketball team is headed to the Midwest this weekend, somewhere it hasn’t been in a long time.

The Pirates, ranked 19th in the latest d3hoops.com poll, will start by playing at No. 5 Wisconsin-Platteville on Friday, followed by a game Saturday at Wisconsin-Whitewater, two hours farther east. It will be the Pirates’ second matchup against each team, the last coming in 2013 and 2011, respectively.

The two opponents contrast starkly to those Whitworth has already played this season, specifically Greenville (Illinois), whom the Pirates beat 146-110 last Friday at the Fieldhouse.

The team set program records for points, field goals made (65) and assists (47), and graduate student Jordan Lester recorded the Pirates’ first triple-double in 12 years.

“It was a weird style that we played against. Unorthodox,” Lester said of Greenville, which runs a system known by its origin school, Grinnell, that focuses on shooting a lot of 3-pointers, forcing turnovers and just taking a lot more shots than opponents.

“They pressed the whole game. We had to make quick decisions to get easy layups out of that,” Lester said. “They literally run and jump on everything. Any dead ball they sub five in, five out. So it’s like (Northwest Conference foe) Pacific’s style on steroids.”

After that, the Pirates outlasted Redlands (California) 74-68, a team that is coached by former Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland. He won three NWC championships in 12 seasons at Whitman.

This weekend’s opponents present different challenges, though, Pirates third-year head coach Damion Jablonski said.

“Totally different style for the most part. Much more half-court oriented teams,” he said. “They like to pound it inside, like to grind out possessions.”

The Pirates played nine games against non-West Coast teams during the 2019-20 season and went 6-3 in those contests, including two victories in the NCAA Tournament. Rowan Anderson was a sophomore on that team.

Now a senior, Anderson said this year’s team is particularly deep, and Lester’s presence has brought extra poise to a team looking to get back to the postseason.

“He brings an incredible amount of composure for us,” Anderson said. “You see that in our last game against Redlands, (when) we relied on him a lot down the stretch to help get some buckets, to just really be a rock at certain times where some of us just need that help. … He never loses his cool. He brings that extra level of experience that we need.”

Lester, who is now 24 but still eligible thanks to a pair of medical hardship waivers, joked that the Pirates he first played with in 2017 are all establishing their careers outside of the sport, and “here I am still playing basketball,” he said. “But it’s awesome, and I love it.”

Behind Lester’s team-leading 32 points through two games, graduate student Miguel Lopez is next with 30, along with 17 total rebounds and nine assists. Lopez joined the Pirates last season as a senior transfer, when he started 15 games and led the team in scoring.

“I think it’s always difficult to get everything out of a one-year transfer just because there’s so much that you learn culturewise and systemwise,” Jablonski said, “so it’s exciting to have him here for another year with what he learned last year, and it’s been great so far.”

After their trip to Wisconsin, the Pirates will play their next three games on the road, including visits to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Pomona-Pitzer and then their NWC opener at Willamette, a team Whitworth didn’t see last season. Their next home game will be Dec. 7 against rival Whitman.

All of that represents a return to a normal schedule after last season, when the farthest Whitworth traveled for a game was the Seattle-Tacoma area.

“I think every aspect of this year that has some normalcy is really exciting,” Anderson said. “This last weekend, having fans in the Fieldhouse, and that Redlands game was super exciting.

“Being able to go on another big road trip, play a few really, really good teams in Wisconsin – all that is super exciting.”

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