|Kyle Roach's 45 points against Whitman was the second highest single-game total in program history.|
By Nathan Ford
A question may have percolated through the bleachers at Whitworth Fieldhouse last Tuesday night. “What if?”
You can’t blame anyone in red and black who tried to answer that.
The Pirates were 10 seconds away from handing rival Whitman its first loss of the season. A rival that also happens to be ranked No. 1 in country.
Whitman's All-American point guard Tim Howell collected the ball at midcourt and drove right. Whitworth's Kyle Roach was in the lane, waiting for him. Roach slid to the right block. Howell collided with the Whitworth junior guard. Whistle. Blocking foul.
Roach shrugged in exasperation. Howell’s ensuing two free throws didn’t touch the rim on their way through the basket. Roach tried to plead his case, but nothing could be done. Whitworth couldn’t get a shot off with 0.9 seconds left.
No. 1 Whitman 100, No. 4 Whitworth 99.
Roach slapped a towel on the bench. Howell flexed, and Whitman (23-0, 14-0 NWC) celebrated its seventh straight victory over its fellow Whit.
“Any loss for any guy on our team is really tough to take,” Roach said in a phone interview a week later. “Especially that one on our home court, all our fans came out and we played such a good game, too.”
What if a charge had been called? Or nothing at all?
It’s not completely out of the question, being that the rule is left to a judgment call more than almost any other in sports.
Whitworth (20-3, 12-2) would have only needed to inbound the ball. A court storm might have been in the works.
“Unfortunate how it ended,” Roach said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Roach was the lone returning starter this year for a Whitworth team that was 23-5 last season and continued a near-annual tradition with its 11th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
The 6-foot-5 junior led the Pirates in scoring in 2016-17 (15.9) and was ready for an expanded leadership role after captaining his high school team at Marin Academy (Calif.) for three years.
Reinforcements poured in. Jordan Lester arrived from Division I Robert Morris. Jared Christy transferred in from NWC foe Pacific Lutheran. Garrett Hull made the jump from Community College of Spokane. Ben College and Ben Bishop seamlessly stepped into the starting lineup after holding reserve roles the previous two seasons.
The new-look Bucs won their first eight games. Then, on Dec. 19, Whitworth went down. Lester did, too. A knee injury sidelined him for the season. Wheaton (Ill.) pulled away for a 92-84 victory.
The Pirates won another four games, then ran into Whitman. The Blues sprinted to a 91-75 victory via 59 second-half points.
Eight consecutive Whitworth wins followed. Then in round two with Whitman, the Pirates didn’t fold.
Roach was outstanding, making 18 of 29 field goal attempts, including 4 of 8 from three-point range in a 45-point outburst. He added nine rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“I don’t think I realized what a groove he was in until toward the end of the first half when I looked up and he had 24, because things are coming just naturally in the flow of the game because of the style that Whitman plays,” Whitworth head coach Matt Logie said.
Roach has scored like that before in high school, but this was about to be the game of his life.
“(High school games) were nothing like last week when the stands were packed and we were playing one of the best teams in the country at our level,” Roach said. “It was really special to do it on such a high level against such a great team. I think that’s probably one of the better games I’ve played in my career.”
But it still wasn’t quite enough, and Roach is still waiting to experience the feeling of beating Whitman.
What if Lester was healthy? No one can predict how that game may have played out. Injuries are a part of sports. But losing a 15.7-points-per-game scorer is going to affect any team.
“First of all, it’s kind of scary to think what our ceiling would be with him in this group,” Logie said. “I think we were headed in a really special direction.
“But the reality of it is, when he went down, none of our goals changed. None of our processes changed … We’ve got an opportunity to accomplish all the same things that we would have had Jordan not gotten hurt.”
Roach’s production has gone up. Originally recruited as a point guard, Whitworth’s coaching staff realized what a scorer he was during his senior year of high school. That translated to the next level.
“That was a nice surprise and bonus, but now that his career has developed and he’s scored at such a high rate for us, it’s nice to have that point guard mentality, court vision and feel for the game that he’s been able to utilize as well,” Logie said.
Roach was the team’s leading scorer in one game prior to the Wheaton game. Since then, he’s had the team-high in 11 and is averaging 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
With 21.6 seconds to play last Tuesday and Whitman leading by two, all eyes were on Roach. He took the ball at midcourt, then showed what Logie called “maturity” to cap “one of the standout performances that we’ve had here in the Field House.” He dribbled right, handed off to College on the wing and helped create separation for his teammate – another double-digit scorer (16.0) who is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range this year – to get the shot off. Swish.
Whitworth was poised for its first win in the series since Jan. 5, 2016. But then, Howell drove right and you know the rest.
“That game will make us better moving into the postseason and hopefully the NCAA tournament as well,” Roach said.
What if they meet again?
Whitman and Whitworth will be the top two seeds in next week’s NWC tournament. One win apiece and we’ll get a Game 3.
How about a Game 4? With the way the Division III bracket is set up with geography in mind, the isolated Whits wouldn’t be shocked to see each other again.
Ultimately, though, “what if?” is a question for fans and media. These players and coaches have other games to prepare for. You don’t win 20-plus games every year by looking ahead or behind.
Here is what we know right now: Whitman is an elite team. Whitworth is an elite team. Whitman won. Whitworth lost. March is coming.
“I was really proud of the way our guys battled and showed improvement from our first game against them,” Logie said. “That’s what it’s all about this time of year, continuing to get better. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to play them again down the road.”