In boxing parlance, Whitworth is seeking to unify the belts.
The Northwest Conference’s three regular-season co-champions – Whitworth, Linfield and Pacific Lutheran – join perennial contender Whitman this week in pursuit of an NWC men’s basketball tournament title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament that comes with it.
Whitworth, seeded second, hosts No. 3 seed PLU on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Fieldhouse. No. 1 seed Linfield plays fourth-seeded Whitman in McMinnville, Oregon, in Thursday’s other semifinal. The winners of those two matchups will clash in the title game on Saturday, and the highest remaining seed will host.
The Pirates (20-4 ), Linfield (18-6) and PLU (18-7) each finished 13-3 in conference play, the first time the conference has had three co-champions since 1987.
“Winning a conference championship in basketball is really hard,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said. “We had some ups and downs and dropped a few games maybe we wish we were better, but we learned a lot along the way.
“I think the other two teams are both extremely well-coached teams. PLU is very disciplined on the defensive end. Linfield is very explosive on the offensive end. I think both coaches (Linfield’s Shanan Rosenberg and PLU’s Chad Murray) do a great job really maximizing their strengths.”
Whitworth and the Lutes split their two games in the regular season, each winning at home. The Pirates scored a season-low 48 points on 33% shooting from the floor in their most recent meeting, a 64-48 loss in Parkland, Washington, on Feb. 11.
The Pirates dominated PLU in a 97-69 win at home in the teams’ first game on Jan. 15.
Jablonski said Whitworth must do a better job establishing its style of play in the rubber match.
“We can’t let their game plan dictate tempo as much as we did when we visited Parkland,” Jablonski said. “It sounds simplified, but we need to make shots. We did not shoot the ball well at all, and a lot of that is a credit to their defense. But some nights the ball just doesn’t fall.”
JT McDermott is scoring 14.2 points per game, and Miguel Lopez and Garrett Paxton are averaging 11.4 and 11.3 points, respectively, for Whitworth.
PLU guard Seth Hall, a senior, led the NWC, averaging 20.3 points per game during the regular season. Hall scored 19 points in each of the two meetings against the Pirates.
“He’s just a very skilled player,” Jablonski said. “Obviously, he’s a guy who has put in a lot of work over the years and gotten a lot better every year. You can tell when a player continues to add to his skill set. He’s a really good shooter and difficult to defend in isolation because he can create space for himself and make difficult shots.”
Linfield gained the NWC’s top seed in the conference tournament as a result of a 3-1 record in games against Whitworth and PLU.
Whitman (11-13) won’t be a pushover, though. The Blues won their final two games of the conference schedule to secure their place in the tournament, and they beat Linfield 81-80 on Jan. 19 in Walla Walla.
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