So many of Whitworth’s most recent victories required a late surge and a halftime comeback, but there was no such need for the Pirates on Thursday night.
Whitworth held Linfield to 1-of-10 shooting to start the game, and Roach scored 15 of the Pirates’ first 17 points as Whitworth won convincingly at the Fieldhouse, 88-69, advancing to the Northwest Conference Tournament finals for the 16th straight season.
The Pirates (21-5 overall) will head to Walla Walla to face the top-seeded Whitman Blues (25-1), the second-ranked team in the country, at 7 p.m. Saturday. They have beaten the Blues once in their past 10 tries, that victory coming in last year’s NWC Tournament championship game, also in Walla Walla.
With a potential at-large bid in doubt, Whitworth likely needs to win Saturday to ensure its place in the Division III NCAA Tournament for the 13th consecutive season.
“Win or go home,” senior Kevin Crosno said, “so we’re gonna come out with the same energy, same intensity, and hopefully the same start.”
The Pirates hit 10 of their first 16 field-goal attempts against Linfield and had a 24-4 lead less than 8 minutes into the game.
Roach sank a trio of 3-pointers to spark the Pirates, who had needed a late comeback to beat Linfield 74-73 just 13 days ago at the Fieldhouse and had trailed at halftime in six of their previous seven games.
“I felt like everybody was really focused, everybody was locked in, and when we’re all locked in and focused on the game plan like that, we execute really well,” junior Ben College said.
College wasn’t particularly involved on offense early on, having just three points at halftime.
But at that point the Pirates were ahead 52-27, their largest halftime lead of the year, and eventually College got going. He finished with 16 points, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
Roach led all scorers with 27 points. He also grabbed 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season.
Whitworth built its lead to as many as 28 in the second half, but Linfield used a 20-8 run to draw within 14 points – 79-65 – with just less than 5 minutes to go.
But junior Sam Lees hit a jumper and College drilled a 3 on the next possession, ending Linfield’s surge.
Lees finished with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting in a season-high 17 minutes off the bench.
“Sam’s been playing really well,” said coach Matt Logie, who improved to 18-0 against Linfield in his eighth year at Whitworth. “He’s a glue guy for us. He can play a lot of different positions, he’s active defensively and he’s a really good finisher and midrange player. That was great to have that burst off the bench tonight.”
Crosno added 10 points off the bench.
After its hot start, Whitworth finished the game shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 13 of 31 from 3-point range – including 5 of 10 on 3-point attempts from Roach. It was the most 3s the Pirates had made in a conference game all season.
Linfield made 6 of 20 3-point attempts and shot 42.6 percent from the floor.
The Pirates also recorded 20 assists, their most in eight games, and had nine steals, their most against an NWC foe all year.
“We just came out playing together like we know how to play, and came out with energy,” Crosno said.
Neither team went to the free-throw line much: Whitworth finished with a season-low 11 attempts, and Linfield was 11 of 15 from the line.
Whitworth turns its attention to Whitman, with the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. The Blues, the West Region’s top team, beat Puget Sound 128-81 in the other semifinal on Thursday.
“I’m glad,” College said of playing Whitman. “That’s who I wanted to play.”
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