SPOKANE - Whitworth, the No. 2-ranked team in Division III men's basketball, outscored underdog Pacific Lutheran 17-7 over the final 4:35 to hold off the upstart Lutes, 74-63, in a Northwest Conference playoff game played Thursday night at the Whitworth Fieldhouse.
Whitworth advances to the conference title game at 7 p.m. Saturday where it will host the No. 2 seed Whitman Missionaries, who beat Lewis & Clark in the other Thursday night semifinal.
For the Lutes, the season ends with a 15-10 record after the program's first NWC playoff appearance since the 1997-98 season. This year's team had in mind to do what that 1997-98 squad accomplished, a No. 4 seed upsetting No. 1 seed Whitworth on the road. For the majority of the game, that seemed a real possibility.
The Pirates (25-1), the No. 1 tournament seed by virtue of their regular season conference title, survived a fierce challenge from the Lutes (15-10), the No. 4 seed, who led 32-28 at the half. In fact, PLU took its final lead at 54-53 on Andrew Earnest's three-point shot with 7:20 remaining in the game. James Conti later hit a layup with 4:35 on the clock to pull the Lutes within a point at 57-56.
Whitworth responded with a game-changing run of seven unanswered points fueled by Clay Gebbers. An unsung guard on a team with several marquee players, Gebbers grabbed an offensive rebound after a missed shot, and that possession led to a long-range three by David Riley. After a PLU miss, Gebbers grabbed another offensive board and scored a layup to make it 62-56, and he finished the run with a pair of free throws at the 2:35 mark following a Lutes turnover. Gebbers, at 6-1, led all players with nine rebounds.
Starting with the Gebbers charity tosses, the Pirates iced the game by shooting 12-for-12 from the free throw line to hold off the Lutes.
The fact that the game was a nailbiter for the 1,275 in attendance was a testimony to Pacific Lutheran's refusal to follow the script. Among Whitworth's wins during a record-setting 24-1 regular season were a pair of lopsided decisions over the Lutes that totaled 61 points. Not many with knowledge of Northwest Conference men's basketball figured that the Lutes would give the Pirates a battle, but that's what happened on Thursday night.
With Earnest burying a pair of three-point bombs in the early going, the Lutes took a 12-5 lead 4 1/2 minutes into the contest. Controlling the tempo throughout the first half, the Lutes maintained their lead until Mike Taylor's three-point shot tied it at 22-22 with 5:57 left in the opening half. Whitworth didn't take its first lead until Wade Gebbers hit a trey at the 1:29 mark. When Earnest hit his third trey of the opening period just before the buzzer, however, the Lutes took a 32-28 lead into the intermission, silencing the Whitworth crowd.
The teams combined for seven ties and seven lead changes through the first 13 minutes of the second half. Whitworth finally took the lead for good with seven minutes left on a layup by Taylor, a Division I transfer from Montana who led all players with 30 points.
Taylor was the difference in the game, shooting 9-for-18 from the field, including 2-for-2 from beyond the arc, and 10-for-10 from the foul line. He also contributed five rebounds and three assists. His offensive contribution was especially important in the first half because Riley, Whitworth's other primary scoring threat, did not hit a field goal in the opening period while scoring just two points. Riley ended up with 11 points in the game, as did 6-8 center Felix Friedt.
Conti was all over the floor for the Lutes, recording six assists and two steals while scoring 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the field and 4-for-6 from the foul line. Earnest was 4-for-9 from three-point range on the way to 14 points, and Kyle MacTaggart finished his PLU career with 12 points.
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