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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

With pivotal road trip looming, conference-leading Whitworth basketball faces Willamette at home Friday

Garrett Paxton has averaged over 11 points per game for Whitworth basketball this season.  (Courtesy of Whitworth athletics)
By Jason Shoot The Spokesman-Review

Whitworth is right where it wants to be, but the Pirates have places to go.

Ranked 16th nationally, Whitworth sits atop the Northwest Conference men’s basketball standings a little more than halfway through the schedule. The Pirates (15-2, 8-1 NWC) host Willamette (5-11, 2-6) Friday night at 8 at the Fieldhouse in their one home game during a three-week span featuring six games on the road.

The Pirates traveled to play Willamette in Salem on Dec. 4, and Whitworth built a 17-point lead at halftime in a 94-81 victory. Garrett Paxton scored 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting, and Jordan Lester was one point and one rebound shy of a triple-double.

The game, though, wasn’t as one-sided as those details may indicate. The Bearcats made 33 of 69 shots (47.8%) from the field compared to Whitworth’s 33-for-76 effort (43.4%). Willamette’s Cedric Coward, a 6-foot-4 freshman, finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and an imposing eight blocked shots.

Coward’s production as a first-year player has been impressive.

Playing just 28 minutes a night, Coward’s 18.1 points per game rate fourth in the NWC, and his 12 rebounds per game top the conference by a considerable margin. Whitworth’s Miguel Lopez is a distant second averaging 7.1 rebounds.

“Cedric Coward is a tremendous first-year talent,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said. “He’s incredibly long and has great timing, which translates to being a great rebounder and rim protector.

“He really can score at all three levels: shooting the 3, slashing to the basket and posting up. He’s also got a great IQ and feel for the game. Honestly, there is no question that he is worthy of high All-NWC consideration already as a freshman.”

If the Pirates maintain their narrow lead in the NWC standings through the weekend, Whitworth faces four straight road games against opponents eager to avenge earlier losses against the Pirates.

Whitworth ended Linfield’s unbeaten conference start in a 90-43 drubbing at home on Jan. 18, but the Wildcats lurk just a game and a half behind Whitworth in the standings ahead of a matchup Feb. 4 in McMinnville, Oregon. Whitworth plays Pacific the following night in Forest Grove, Oregon, in a rematch after the Pirates’ 88-72 home win on Jan. 19.

Second-place Pacific Lutheran was unable to keep pace with the host Pirates in the second half of a 97-69 loss on Jan. 15 but gets another shot Feb. 11 in Tacoma. Whitworth ends the stretch of road games at Puget Sound on Feb. 12. The Pirates beat UPS 93-77 at the Fieldhouse on Jan. 14.

“Going into the year we certainly had these three weeks circled on the calendar as perhaps our toughest stretch of the year,” Jablonski said. “Back-to-back road weekends against the logjam of teams nipping at our heels in the conference standings is certainly challenging.

“However, if there is anything this last stretch of six games has taught us, it’s that our team can endure if we bring the right focus and togetherness to the task. Our guys are competitors, and they are looking forward to the challenge ahead of us.”