With 1:21 left in the second half of the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday, the student section at the Whitworth Fieldhouse started to chant “It’s a blowout.”
For the first time in a decade, it was apt.
Whitworth shot almost nothing but leaners, layups and turnarounds in the lane all night, and in the process it beat Whitman 85-59 for the Pirates’ first NWC Tournament title since 2018.
It earned Whitworth an automatic bid in the Division III Tournament, which starts next week. The NCAA will release the bracket on Monday.
It was the largest margin of victory – for either side – in a Battle of Whits in 10 years and the largest in an NWC championship game since 2008, when Whitworth beat Puget Sound by 27 and won its second of 10 straight titles under coaches Jim Hayford and Matt Logie.
But after that dominance, Whitman had won three of the last four NWC tournament title games, including one at the Fieldhouse in 2020 in Damion Jablonski’s first year as Whitworth’s head coach.
Senior Rowan Anderson played in the last two tournaments – the 2021 event was cancelled due to COVID-19 – but both of those times, the Pirates lost close games to the Blues.
“It’s great to beat them here,” Anderson said. “It makes it all worth it: Riding the bench for two years, having to put in long hours, having the COVID year and not knowing what’s promised. It makes it all worth it.”
The Pirates’ players and coaches took their turn cutting down the nets, something they did in 2020 – but in a practice, after they learned they had made the NCAA Tournament field as an at-large selection.
This time, they got to cut down the nets with certainty.
“It was awesome, just to be able to give the guys that experience,” Jablonski said. “Really, that’s why all of them come to Whitworth.”
The last four NWC Tournament finals each featured close games between the Pirates and Blues, the largest margin of victory being just six points.
The rivals split their regular-season series – the Pirates winning by 11 and the Blues by two – but on Saturday, Whitworth trailed only briefly, 20-18, relying on a trio of post players to steadily increase the Pirates’ lead. JT McDermott, Miguel Lopez and Jake Holtz shot a combined 27 of 36 and scored 64 points.
“We found our identity halfway through the season inside out, and that’s how we’ve been rolling this last half of the year,” said the senior McDermott, who led all scorers with 23 points. “If they double, we’ll pass it if someone’s open. But if they don’t double, we’re just going to show every time. And tonight they didn’t double. So it was Miguel, Holtz and my turn to score.”
As a team, Whitworth made a season-low 2 of 13 3-point attempts. But the Pirates simply didn’t need to settle for jump shots when the Blues could not contain the Pirates’ post presence. Whitworth scored 62 points in the paint – Whitman had 30 – and the Pirates made 59.6% of their shots overall.
After the Blues took their lead 20-18 midway through the first half, the Pirates answered with a 12-0 run. Whitman got back within five points later, 36-31, but then Garrett Paxton hit a 3-pointer – the Pirates’ first made shot outside the paint to that point – and Whitworth carried a 43-34 lead into halftime.
Early in the second, Whitworth went on a 19-0 run – capped by another Paxton 3 – to take a 64-40 lead. Whitman never got closer than 15 points after that.
So dominant were the Pirates that the senior point guard Anderson played just 17 minutes, his third-fewest of the season, and attempted just two shots from the field. Fellow seniors Paxton and Liam Fitzgerald – finished with nine and eight points, respectively.
Though they don’t yet know where, the Pirates will be back in the NCAA Tournament after winning their first two games in 2020 before the initial pandemic shutdowns canceled the event heading into the Round of 16.
“Some of us were on that squad, and we remember what that felt like,” Anderson said. “But it’s a whole new season in itself. We’re excited for the brackets to come out Monday. Hopefully we can host. We’ll see, though. We keep saying 40 more minutes, and that’s what we keep wanting to get: 40 more minutes.”
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