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No. 7 Whitworth men gear up for showdown with fourth-ranked Whitman

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 7, 2019, 10:04 p.m.

Whitworth guard Ben College (4) and Whitman guard Jaron Kirkley (11) scramble for a loose ball during the first half of their 2018 matchup at Whitworth. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth guard Ben College (4) and Whitman guard Jaron Kirkley (11) scramble for a loose ball during the first half of their 2018 matchup at Whitworth. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The list of recent accomplishments for the Whitworth men’s basketball program is an impressive one.

Twelve consecutive Division III tournament appearances. Victories in 148 of its last 160 Northwest Conference games. A 53-week stay in the Top 25 rankings.

If only they could get over the Whitman Blues.

The last few years, the Blues (11-1, 3-0 NWC), ranked fourth in the most recent D3hoops.com poll, are the one team the seventh-ranked Pirates (11-1, 3-0) just haven’t been able to beat consistently.

The teams will renew their rivalry at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Whitworth Fieldhouse.

“That’s what these kids work for. It’s their moment, their opportunity to shine, and both programs have put themselves in position to be in these type of games,” said Whitworth coach Matt Logie, who is 8-10 against Whitman. “Hopefully we can handle the pressure of the situation well.”

Whitworth ended a seven-game losing streak to Whitman – then ranked No. 1 in the nation – with a 91-88 victory to win the NWC tournament last season.

That set up a potential matchup in the second round of last year’s D-III tournament – Whitworth was still sent to Whitman’s gym in Walla Walla as part of a four-team pod – but the Pirates lost their first-round game to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

Whitman went on to reach the quarterfinals of the 64-team bracket.

But with five returning starters, the Pirates are well-positioned to keep pace with the high-scoring Blues again this year. The Pirates rank sixth in all of Division III in scoring (95.1 points per game) and are third (among 416 teams) in field-goal percentage at 53.2.

“I think we’re finding a lot of great flow on offense and starting to lock down on defense as well,” said junior Ben College. “We’ve hit our stride.”

College certainly has. He leads the Pirates with 21.6 points per game, nearly 5 better than the reigning NWC Player of the Year, Whitworth senior Kyle Roach (16.8). College has hit 48 of 102 3-point attempts so far and is 41 of 44 at the free-throw line.

“I feel like my job is to shoot when I’m open, and my teammates have done a great job of finding me when I’m open,” College said. “I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without them.”

The Pirates have also settled into a rotation of eight or nine players after losing senior Garrett Hull to a season-ending injury on Nov. 30. Last year, Hull stepped into the starting lineup when Jordan Lester went down with a similar injury.

Lester, a junior point guard, has since returned to the starting lineup and is averaging 12.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

“As the season goes on, those things start to come into focus a little bit,” Logie said of the rotation. “We’ve known what guys were capable of, and some guys have done a good job of stepping up into some increased roles.”

One such contributor is sophomore Isaiah Hernandez, the former Lewis & Clark High player who has seen his minutes increase to 17.6 per game since Hull went down and is scoring an average of 7 points off the bench during that seven-game stretch.

Whitman counters with four senior starters and a fast-paced offense that ranks fourth nationally in points per game (105.5), third in turnover margin (plus-11.1) and second in steals (15.1).

“There’s a lot of hype surrounding it of course,” College said of the rivalry. “It’s kind of what you live for as a player … playing against the best teams.”

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