WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Second-ranked Whitman edged 4th-ranked Whitworth 86-83 in overtime of the Northwest Conference men's basketball tournament championship game at the Sherwood Center on Saturday night. Will it be worthy of an NCAA tournament encore?
While the Blues (27-0) remain the only unbeaten team in all of NCAA men's basketball and claim the league's automatic bid to the national tournament, the Pirates (23-4) will have to wait for one of the precious few at-large bids available in Monday morning's announcement. If the Bucs are selected, they will most likely return to Whitman for the first two rounds of the national tournament next weekend.
Joey Hewitt's free throws with eight seconds left gave Whitman its final margin and Ben College's three-pointer at the buzzer bounced off of the back rim.
After making a crucial defensive stop at the end of regulation, the Pirates had a chance to win the game in overtime with 1.7 seconds left. Drew Sears caught a length-of-the-court pass at the free throw line and immediately passed out to Kenny Love, who got off a three-pointer before the final horn. It didn't go in.
"I couldn't be prouder of the way our guys fought tonight," said Whitworth head coach Matt Logie. "We had our chances in overtime in a great game played in a fantastic environment. We will learn what we can from this and get ready for the NCAAs."
The game included wide swings of momentum. Whitman used an 8-0 first half run to grab a 20-11 lead on a three-pointer by Jack Stewart. Whitworth answered with a 12-3 run to tie the game 23-23 on Benjamin Nick's put-back basket. The game was tied five more times before going to halftime deadlocked 36-36. Love had ten points in the first half for the Pirates, while NWC Player of the Year Tim Howell scored 11 for the Blues.
Whitman opened the second half on an 8-0 run, grabbing a 44-36 lead on a basket by Howell and forcing a Whitworth timeout. But the Pirates responded with a 13-2 run to retake the lead 49-46 on a bucket by Love. Leading 58-57, Whitworth used a 10-1 run to open a 68-58 advantage with 5:32 left on Derek Isaak's layup. Whitman fought back to tie the game 70-70 after a 12-2 run, capped by Austin Butler's score with 2:26 to go. Love's three-pointer with 44 seconds left gave the Bucs a 74-72 lead, but JoJo Wiggins hit a pair of clutch free throws with 16 seconds left to tie the game. Whitworth immediately turned the ball over on a five-second call, but made the defensive stop by forcing a Whitman turnover with 1.7 seconds to go.
After Whitman scored the opening bucket of overtime, Whitworth got six straight points to go up 80-76. Wiggins put Whitman back ahead 82-81 with a three-point play with 41 seconds left in OT, but Christian Jurlina answered with a basket for the Pirates to give Whitworth its last lead. Austin Butler's basket gave Whitman the lead back with 25 ticks left and Whitworth turned the ball over, setting up Hewitt's free throws.
Love led five Pirates in double figures with 21 points and he also had seven rebounds and three assists. Kyle Roach scored 16 and also grabbed seven boards, while Drew Sears added a dozen points. Jurlina finished with 11 points and Nick scored a career-high 11 off of the bench. Whitworth finished with a 46-36 advantage in rebounds. But the Pirates committed 26 turnovers against the Blues' pressing defense.
"Kenny poured himself into this game and he hit a huge shot that got us to overtime," Logie said. "Our seniors have done a fantastic job of running our race and I'm excited for the next lap."
Howell finished the game with 30 points for Whitman, while Wiggins totaled 15 points. Hewitt came off of the bench for 13 and Stewart had a dozen. The Blues claimed their first NWC tournament title.
Whitworth's streak of 10 consecutive Northwest Conference tournament titles. The Pirates have been to 11 NCAA tournaments, but have never had to rely on an at-large bid to participate. The NCAA will announce the Division III men's tournament field on Monday morning at 9:30 am Pacific time.