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

Top-seeded Whitworth opens Northwest Conference Tournament against Puget Sound Friday

Whitworth’s Menard Sullivan shoots against Puget Sound on Jan. 21 at Whitworth Fieldhouse.  (Courtesy of Whitworth Athletics)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

Whitworth finds itself in familiar territory as it makes its 26th appearance in 27 years of the Northwest Conference Tournament.

The Pirates (17-8) will enjoy the friendly confines of the Whitworth Fieldhouse after earning the No. 1 seed from regular-season play, clinching it with a 77-53 win over Puget Sound last week.

First up at the tourney is a game with No. 4 Puget Sound (13-12) at 8 p.m. Friday – their third head-to-head matchup this season.

The winner plays the victor of No. 2 Whitman (19-6) and No. 3 Pacific (15-10) on Saturday at 6 p.m.

All three games are at Whitworth Fieldhouse.

Whitworth has appeared in the championship game 20 times, including 19 in a row. The Pirates have 15 NWC titles overall.

Whitworth is 2-0 against Puget Sound this season, winning the Jan. 21 home matchup 79-70.

“As staff, you really have to game plan on what kind of changes we need to make, but also what kinds of changes they might make,” Pirates head coach Damion Jablonski said. “So that we can anticipate how to counter move, whatever they might do.”

The Pirates are not overlooking the Loggers after last week’s 24-point victory, though.

Mental preparation is just as important as physical in a game like this, Jablonski said.

“Nothing is a wrap no matter what previous outcomes you had,” he said. “The parity in college basketball, but also just the fact that anyone can win a basketball game. All it takes is a really good shooting effort on a given night, or really off night by the other team.”

The Pirates started the season 5-1 before a four-game losing streak against nonconference opponents. They won 12 of their final 15 games to earn the No. 1 seed.

Jablonski said his team had to show a lot of resiliency after the 5-5 start.

Graduate Senior Jerry Twenge said the team was frustrated at some of those losses, including an overtime setback to Knox (Illinois), but the competition has been tough.

“We found out some things about ourselves as a team, a lot of just focusing on staying together as a team, trusting each other, and how important that was,” Twenge said. “But we definitely had to fight and dig a little deeper into our will to win.”

This will be Twenge’s fourth and final appearance in the NWC Tournament.

“It was super fun going down to Whitman last year, winning it down there, but super excited to have the opportunity to do that in front of our fans, and all the support that we have in this community of Whitworth,” Twenge said.

The Pirates are hoping that not having to travel, being able to practice on their own court and having the support of their fans directly impact results.

“It is that much more special to all of us guys, especially me being from Spokane as well,” Twenge said.

Twenge is one of a few Pirates who has been in this tournament – and been successful – multiple times, so there is precedent and expectations. He and the other veterans have a role to play for the team throughout the postseason.

A season ago, Whitworth made it to the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament, dropping the game to St. John Fisher (New York).

“Especially having them last year be a part of (the postseason), having some guys even getting in there and playing some meaningful minutes, that’s huge,” Twenge said. “But just having such a good group of younger guys has been something this whole year that’s been super special. They bring a lot of energy, they’re super fun to be around, super fun group of guys. I’ve enjoyed being around them this year to keep me young.”

Jablonski said his veterans have a consistent competitive spirit that any team must have to be a championship-caliber program.

They will need all the energy and spirit for the postseason because of one looming question . Leading Pirates scorer JoJo Anderson (17.7 ppg) missed Saturday’s Puget Sound game from the lingering effects of shoulder issues .

Anderson is fighting to be out there, Twenge said, but Whitworth is prepared to compete without him.

“If (he’s out) this weekend, we’re going to miss him big time,” Twenge said. “Obviously, he’s been a huge, huge part of our success. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we did without him. We have guys that I know can step up and I’m super confident in and will get the job done for us.”

Jablonski has played seven bench players who are sophomores. As the season has progressed, he has seen their progress as they see the court more.

The Pirates will need that production off the bench to recoup Anderson’s scoring if he can’t go.