Whitworth holds off Pacific Lutheran 80-72, advances to NWC championship game
Feb. 24, 2022 Updated Thu., Feb. 24, 2022 at 10 p.m.
Whitworth’s Garrett Paxton set a tone expected of a senior on Thursday.
The veteran Pirate guard scored 14 of his team-high 17 points in the first half, and he led an inspired effort to stymie league player of the year Seth Hall long enough to claim a 80-72 victory over Pacific Lutheran in the Northwest Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinals at the Fieldhouse.
The tournament’s No. 2 seed, Whitworth (21-4) will host No. 4 seed Whitman, an 82-79 winner over top-seeded Linfield in the other semifinal, in the NWC title game Saturday at 7 p.m. The victor will secure an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
The matchup should not come as a surprise. Whitman and Whitworth met in the NWC tournament championship game four years in a row between 2017-20. The tournament was not held in 2021 due to COVID-19.
“It’s a huge gift to be able to play in front of the Fieldhouse fans,” Pirates coach Damion Jablonski said. “I wish we had earned it by being the No. 1 seed after the regular season, but we’re hoping to take this opportunity and make the most of it.”
Paxton came off a screen to bury a 3-pointer 12 seconds into the game, and he added a 3-pointer from the top of the arc and another long jumper to give Whitworth an 8-0 lead with 18:40 left in the half. PLU (18-8) tried to chip away at the deficit, but the Pirates ensured the visitors never were able to take the lead .
Paxton made 5 of 7 shots before halftime, part of the Pirates’ collective 18-for-31 effort (58%) over the first 20 minutes as Whitworth built a 46-33 advantage.
“We were working on some of those plays this week in practice,” Paxton said. “That gave me confidence to knock those down.”
Hall, who led the NWC with 20.3 points per game, was held to six points and forced into four turnovers in the first half as he struggled to find room to operate with Paxton and other Pirates working over screens and keeping hands in his face.
Hall tried to rally PLU in the second half with 21 of his 25 points after halftime, but the Lutes were unable to make it a single-possession game in the second half.
“Seth is a phenomenal player,” Paxton said. “I love playing against him because he’s a hard competitor and loves the game. With him, you try to force him to take tough shots because you know he’s going to hit them. You can’t give him easy looks.”
Miguel Lopez, who joined Paxton as a second-team all-conference pick, was a workhorse in the post for the Pirates. He scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and collected six rebounds. His 3-point play gave Whitworth a 61-51 lead with 7:38 remaining.
“I wanted to be urgent on the court,” Lopez said.
Added Jablonski: “We’re really big when he is locked in defensively.”
PLU closed within 64-58 on a Hall layup with 4:20 left, but Jojo Anderson responded with a layup on the other end to push the Pirates’ lead back to eight. Two free throws by Hall closed the gap to 71-66, but JT McDermott – a first-team All-NWC selection who tallied 11 points – scored inside to stretch the margin to seven with a minute and a half to play.
Rowan Anderson’s two free throws gave Whitworth a 75-66 lead with a minute left, putting the game out of reach.
Sean McCurdy added 15 points for PLU, and Brandin Riedel and Sam Noland added 12 and 11, respectively.
The Pirates split a pair of games against Whitman (12-13) this season. Whitworth rolled to an 82-71 home win over the Blues in early December, but Whitman held on for a 71-69 win on Jan. 8 in Walla Walla.
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