SPOKANE, Wash. – The finish was nothing short of spectacular Saturday night as Whitman College broke Whitworth University's 27-game home winning streak. After falling behind by double-digits early, Whitman fought and clawed its way back into the game. Christian McDonald's game winner fell through the net with 2.6 seconds on the clock, securing the 88-86 win for the Missionaries and sending them on to the Sweet 16.
With less than two minutes to play Whitworth's George Valle converted a lay-in with the foul that gave the Pirates a two point lead, but Howell answered back with an and-one of his own. After forcing a shot clock violation on the ensuing possession, Howell again came up with a big shot stretching the lead to three with 32.2 showing on the clock.
Pirates' guard, Kenny Love, who caught fire late, buried a huge three-pointer to tie the game with 13.1 seconds to play. It was on the following play that McDonald connected on a two-foot jumper to give the Missionaries the lead with 2.6 seconds showing. A Hail Mary inbounds play was intercepted by first year Austin Butler to finish the game the send Whitman to the next round.
"Coach drew the play up for me to take the shot," McDonald said about taking the game winner. "I wouldn't say it was nerves, I think it was just being more focused, making the right play and making the right read."
Head coach Eric Bridgeland was at a loss of words after the game as he tried to explain the magnitude of the win. "To make plays down the stretch and beat a champion at their place, and to break through when being down early and fighting the whole way, I don't have a word to describe that."
As expected the start of the game was tense, but neither team seemed to be affected by the pressure of the moment. In the early going Whitworth turned to George Valle who answered for the Pirates with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. Evan Martin was the motor for the Missionaries, shooting a perfect 4-for-4 for eight points with Tim Howell contributing seven in the opening minutes.
Whitworth caught fire and was able to create some room. With nine minutes to play in the first half the Pirates had run out to a 14 point lead. Whitman did not shy away from the challenge and stormed back to within five. However, an and-one bucket for Whitworth stretched its lead to seven with 55 seconds on the clock.
The double-digit deficit Whitman faced at one point was cut to three entering the half after Butler scored on a put-back buzzer beater. While the Pirates held a 46-43 advantage entering the half, Whitman definitely had momentum on its side.
Entering the break Christian McDonald led all Whitman players with 12 points and Martin added 10. Valle led Whitworth with 16 at the break, but no other Pirate exceeded eight points. Out of the gate, McDonald scored again making it a one point game. Whitworth went on a 6-0 run from that point, regaining a seven point lead 52-45.
Whitman finally broke through at the 14 minute mark, grabbing the 59-57 lead on the back of Howell who erupted for 14 points in a seven minute span. "I love it, I thrive in that," Howell said about the Whitworth crowd. "I love when the fans start yelling at me. It gets me going, gets me motivated." At the midway point of the second half, the Missionaries held a three point lead and continued to run the court with energy.
With seven minutes to play Martin grabbed an offensive rebound and converted the put-back to extend the Whitman lead to five. After back-to-back threes by Whitworth's Love, the Missionary lead had turned into a one-point Pirate lead. McDonald answered with a mid-range jumper that pushed Whitman back on top, 79-78.
As the final minutes wore down the energy in the building began to intensify, but the Missionaries kept their composure and found a way to pull out the win. The win sends Whitman to the Sweet 16 where they will square off against the University of St. Thomas. The location for the game has yet to be determined at this point.