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Sports >  Whitworth

‘This team truly believes’: Whitworth men’s basketball takes on Trinity on Friday in first round of Division III tournament

UPDATED: Thu., March 3, 2022

The Whitworth men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the Northwest Conference championship Saturday against Whitman.  (Caleb Flegel/Whitworth athletics)
The Whitworth men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the Northwest Conference championship Saturday against Whitman. (Caleb Flegel/Whitworth athletics)
By Jason Shoot The Spokesman-Review

The Whitworth men’s basketball team didn’t schedule a mid-November trip to Wisconsin to enjoy the autumn foliage.

The Pirates split a pair of games, losing to UW Platteville, which has been ranked in the top 10 nationally all year, and grabbing a one-point victory against UW Whitewater, which finished its season with a winning record.

Third-year Pirates coach Damion Jablonski said those games were slated with the NCAA Division III Tournament in mind.

“We do have a good strength of schedule with the teams we play,” Jablonski said. “Two, those were two NCAA (Tournament)-caliber teams. Thirdly, it does replicate what you have to do in the tournament on the road playing two tough teams on back-to-back nights.”

The 25th-ranked Pirates (22-4) begin another run at the NCAA Tournament on Friday when they play Trinity (22-5) of Texas in the first round at 1 p.m. in Belton, Texas.

No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor (25-2) will play Chapman (22-4) at 3:30 p.m. and is hosting the four-team pod for the first two rounds. Chapman is unranked but did receive six votes in the latest poll.

Whitworth, which has reeled off a nation-best 16 consecutive 20-win seasons, is competing in the national tournament for the 15th time. The Pirates will be playing in Texas at a site hosting the opening two rounds for the fourth time.

Jablonski and the Pirates have fond memories of their last trip to the Lone Star State in 2020. Whitworth beat LeTourneau and Texas-Dallas, respectively, in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Richardson, Texas, to advance to the Sweet 16.

The initial advance of the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancellation of the remainder of the tournament, however. The ongoing pandemic then wiped out the entirety of the 2021 tournament.

“It would have been nice to finish that out,” Jablonski said of the run to the 2020 Sweet 16. “But this year’s team is a different team, and I’m just excited for these guys to have the opportunity we have in front of us and be able to experience the NCAA Tournament.

“Last year was hard and frustrating not having a postseason to play for, so it’s really great the guys have this opportunity.”

The Pirates are a battle-tested group. Senior forward JT McDermott was a first-team all-conference selection and averages 14.4 points on 62.4% shooting. Graduate forward Miguel Lopez (11.8 ppg) and senior guard Garrett Paxton (11.5 ppg) both earned second-team nods. Liam Fitzgerald, a senior forward, averages 9.3 points and was a valuable contributor on that 2019-20 squad.

“I think this team truly believes in ourselves,” Jablonski said. “Every team we face from here on out is going to be really, really good. Anything can happen, but our guys like our chances. They’re playing for each other and love each other, and that’s a great starting point.”

Trinity’s statistical profile is not dissimilar to the Pirates’. The Tigers rank 24th in the country in points per game (84.1) and Whitworth is 28th (83.8). Trinity allows an average of 73.4 points per game, 203rd nationally. Whitworth allows 71.3, ranking 149th.

Jablonski said the Tigers like to push the tempo and employ a 2-3 zone defense, something Whitworth has seen little of this season.

“We’ve basically faced maybe a game and a half total of zone,” Jablonski said.

Junior Enzo Sechi, a 6-foot-6 forward, leads the Tigers scoring 15.0 points per game, and sophomore Tanner Brown, a 6-3 guard, averages 13.0. Senior AJ Clark, a 6-3 guard, averages 9.4 points and a team-best 6.0 rebounds.

Trinity suffered a 77-58 loss to St. Thomas (Texas) in the Southern Collegiate Athletics Conference Tournament championship game on Sunday, but the Tigers secured the conference’s automatic bid to the national tournament because St. Thomas still is completing the process to join Division III as a full member.

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