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

Division III Tournament: Whitworth basketball faces a St. John Fisher team on Friday that brings defensive pressure

Guard Jerry Twenge has started all 27 games for Whitworth this season, averaging 9.2 points and nearly six rebounds per game.  (Courtesy of Caleb Flegel/Whitworth athletics)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

After playing his first three Division III NCAA Tournament games in Texas, Jerry Twenge said he’s happy that the Whitworth Pirates are finally getting a taste of the East Coast.

In one sense, that taste is literal: On Wednesday night, the Pirates posted pictures outside Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia, near the borough of Swarthmore that is hosting a four-team first-round pod of the 64-team bracket.

But the Pirates will also face a St. John Fisher team that plays a different style of basketball than their previous opponents, Twenge said. He’s relying on the Pirates’ difficult nonconference schedule and their run through the Northwest Conference to have them ready for what is to come when the teams meet Friday afternoon.

“Last year we didn’t have a ton of experience in a game like that,” Twenge said during the team’s layover in Minneapolis on Wednesday. “This year, having the preseason schedule we did gives us a great opportunity to hopefully get two wins this weekend.”

Against Trinity College last year in Benton, Texas, the Pirates trailed by three at half but lost 77-52 and ending their tournament after one game.

That contrasted with the Pirates’ showing in Texas two years earlier, Twenge’s freshman year, when the Pirates won their pod and advanced to the round of 16. Their next game was to be at Swarthmore before the pandemic prompted the cancellation of the tournament.

St. John Fisher – located in Pittsford, New York, about five hours’ drive north of Swarthmore – won the Empire 8 Conference Tournament to earn the conference’s automatic bid.

The Cardinals (21-7) scored a conference-best 82.2 points per game, compared to the Pirates’ 77.9, and they led the Empire 8 in field-goal shooting at 48.4% (Whitworth has made 47.7% this year).

“They get out in half court (defense). They pressure you. They try to speed you up,” Twenge said. “On offense, they take the first good look you give them. They’re not necessarily going to use the whole shot clock and look for the best shot.”

Then, Twenge said, the Cardinals send five guys to get the rebound.

“They’re really good on the offensive glass,” he said.

Senior forward Daniel Cook, who averages 18.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists while also leading the team in steals (43) and blocks (25), is a two-time Empire 8 Player of the Year.

The Pirates (18-9) have won four games in a row, including victories over Puget Sound and Whitman in the NWC Tournament. Fifth-year senior JT McDermott (13.7 points per game) was named first-team all-conference this week; senior Michael Smith (12.7 ppg) was named to the second team.

“I think the last two weekends have probably been our best basketball yet,” Pirates head coach Damion Jablonski said, “so it definitely feels like we’ve been moving in the right direction, playing tough, hard, unselfish (basketball).”

The winner of the Whitworth-St. John Fisher game will play either SUNY Delhi (20-8) or host Swarthmore (24-3) on Saturday afternoon.

“I remember my freshman year I’d never been to the East Coast, so when I heard we were going to Swarthmore I was super excited,” said Twenge, a Mt. Spokane High graduate. “I think coming back there this year, it is kind of ironic that’s where we’d get drawn. Hopefully, it means we can carry on (what we started then).”