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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘We’ve made some significant strides’: Whitworth puts NWC win streak on the line against Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound

Whitworth guard Sullivan Menard ranks third on the team, averaging 13.9 ppg.  (Courtesy of Whitworth Athletics)
By Ethan Myers The Spokesman-Review

The Whitworth men’s basketball team will look to stretch its lead atop the Northwest Conference when it returns home after a road swing.

The Pirates (10-5, 6-0 NWC) have been quick to put last month’s four-game losing streak behind them, tacking on five straight wins, including the last three on the road.

“I think the guys have really been very resilient and I’m proud of the way they stuck together and got some really hard-fought road victories,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said.

This weekend, Whitworth will host Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran, the two conference teams the Pirates haven’t played.

The Pirates’ new-look group, which graduated some of its best players last season, had a streaky start as the team navigated a tough nonconference schedule. After dropping the season opener, Whitworth won five straight before falling on a four-game skid.

But two big wins at home against 15th-ranked Elmhurst (Illinois) and conference rival Whitman helped the team rebuild its confidence and the Pirates are seemingly playing their best basketball again.

“It has kind of been a little bit of an up-and-down year starting off and just the fact that we were able to be in a really good spot right now … I think we feel really confident,” senior guard Sullivan Menard said. “I think we almost forgot what happened earlier in the year and are looking forward to what’s next.”

After a commanding victory 90-75 over Lewis & Clark (5-10, 1-5) on Jan. 5, Whitworth traveled back to Oregon last weekend, collecting wins at George Fox (12-4, 5-2) and Linfield (5-11, 0-7).

George Fox, which sits at second place in the conference, came out swinging against the Pirates and took a 10-point lead into halftime.

But Jablonski said his group never wavered.

“It was one of those games where we came together at halftime and we were all pretty calm and looking at each other like, ‘This is where we want to be,’ ” Menard said. “We felt like we took their best shot … and just hit back in the second half and cut into that lead really quickly.”

The Pirates’ surged to start the second half, taking the lead and never conceding it, winning 80-73. Junior guard Jojo Anderson led the way with 22 points. Menard, sophomore forward Ty Edwards and senior forward Jake Holtz all scored in the double figures.

Linfield, which has challenged conference opponents despite its poor record, made several second-half runs against Whitworth, but the Pirates held on to win 66-62.

“I do think that we’ve made some significant strides from where we were in December in understanding who we are and playing to our strengths, and that’s a big reason why we’ve seen some more success,” Jablonski said of the team finding its identity.

The Pirates are expecting challenging matchups this weekend against teams that gave them headaches in several close games last year.

Pacific Lutheran (10-5, 3-3), which will visit the Pirates on Saturday night, has a stout defense that ranks at the top of the conference in field-goal percentage and points allowed per game. Puget Sound (8-7, 4-2), which plays Whitworth on Sunday after Friday’s game was postponed due to travel issues, is riding a three-game win streak.

“I think these two teams are going to give us whatever they got, but we always play well at home and we feel good about being at home, so it’s just about protecting home court and just knowing that we’re in a really good spot,” Menard said. “If we can just play to our ability and also match their intensity – I feel like they’re going to play really hard and physical.

“Not backing down is going to be really important this weekend.”