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

Heading east: Whitworth men’s basketball to play St. John’s Fisher in first round of NCAA Division III tourney in Pennsylvania

Rowan Anderson, center, and the Whitworth Pirates celebrate Saturday’s victory over Whitman that earned the Pirates an NCAA Division III berth.  (Caleb Flegel/Courtesy of Whitworth athletics)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Division III NCAA Tournament selection committee either has a sense of irony or history – or perhaps both.

That’s because on Monday it opted to send the Whitworth men’s basketball team to a pod with Swarthmore College, the team the Pirates were slated to face in the Round of 16 three years ago, when the sports world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think there’s anything ironic about it,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said soon after seeing his team’s name appear in the 64-team field. “I think it’s very intentional by the committee.”

Swarthmore College (24-3), in Pennsylvania, is the host of the four-team pod and plays SUNY Delhi (20-8) in the other contest.

Whitworth, the Northwest Conference Tournament champion, will play St. John’s Fisher, from Pittsford, New York, in the first round on Friday.

As the No. 4 seed in the Empire 8 Championship Tournament, the Cardinals (21-7) upset top-seeded Utica and second-seeded Nazareth in order to earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs.

The Pirates (18-9) won the NWC Tournament as the No. 3 seed, defeating Puget Sound in the semifinals 70-51 on Friday and then topping rival Whitman 78-65 in the championship game on Saturday.

It was the Pirates’ 15th time winning the NWC Tournament; this is their 16th postseason appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

While Jablonski said Whitworth didn’t enter either of those games feeling like an underdog – the Pirates split the regular-season series with both the Loggers and the Blues – there was a clarity in knowing they probably weren’t going to earn an at-large bid (no NWC team did this year).

“In a weird way it was a little more liberating knowing that you only had one route in,” Jablonski said, “because you just shut out entirely the other options.”

This will be the Pirates’ third trip to the tournament in the last four years – there was no NCAA Tournament in 2021 – and marks the third time that seniors Rowan Anderson, JT McDermott and Mt. Spokane grad Jerry Twenge will play in the event.

Some of the logistics of the trip, like travel arrangements, are easier this time, having made similar decisions in 2020, Jablonski said.

But the thrill of making it to the postseason remains.

“You count your blessings. It’s not something that’s normal,” said Jablonski, who has a 75-25 record as Whitworth’s head coach, including a 2-1 mark in the NCAA Tournament. “I think it’s awesome for our program, given the ups and downs we’ve had in this year. The tournament experience, regardless of how we go, is going to be great for all of our younger guys.”