The No. 13 Whitworth Pirates traveled 2,000 miles to Atlanta to play in the NCAA Division III tournament, but they remain confident that their recipe for success will work in any gym.
Friday at 2:30 p.m., the Pirates (24-3) take on a LaGrange College (17-11) team that won eight of its last nine games and won its conference tournament for the past two years.
“From what we’ve been able to gather so far, LaGrange is a really hot team right now,” Whitworth coach Matt Logie said. “They are a very aggressive team. Defensively, they really try to turn you over. It will be important that we take care of the basketball.”
The Pirates had two players, sophomore guard Kenny Love and wing Christian Jurlina, named to the All-Northwest Conference team. Two other players, senior Taylor Farnsworth and junior George Valle, were named honorable mention.
But one of the unsung heroes of Whitworth’s latest run is a junior guard Matt Staudacher, who transferred into the program from Division II Simon Fraser with the unenviable task of replacing all-everything guard Dustin McConnell.
“He’s really been an important piece of the puzzle,” Logie said of Staudacher. “When you graduate a point guard like Dustin McConnell, an All-American, those are big shoes to fill.”
Staudacher, originally of Kirkland, averaged a fifth-best 6.9 points a game and had the second-most steals (22) on the team.
“Matt’s made an impact by making others around him better,” Logie said. “That’s what you love to see from a point guard.”
Whenever the Pirates’ offense stalled, Staudacher always seemed to find a way drive for a layup or hit a timely 3-pointer to keep Whitworth in the game and opponents’ defenses honest.
“That’s the beauty of our offense because we have so many weapons,” Staudacher said.
Before last year, part of the lure of Whitworth was all the talk about the Pirates’ run of consecutive-conference tournament championships and corresponding automatic berths to the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve heard all the guys and coaches talking about the tradition from day one,” he said. “Then, seeing it all come to life was surreal. I’ve never played with a group of guys like this. I’m super happy to be a part of it.”
After securing Whitworth’s ninth automatic berth with the 68-59 win over Lewis & Clark last Saturday, Staudacher said he and his teammates began poring over box scores, snippets of video and any other information they could get on LaGrange before the coaches could even start the game plan.
“Everyone … is taking all the steps to get the early advantage,” he said.
Logie said the focus will have to be on the Panthers’ Nick Mitchell, who leads LaGrange in scoring at 16.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game.
“He’s kind of an athletic, undersized 3 or 4, but he’s really strong, long-armed and he really attacks the rim and finishes well,” Logie said of the 6-3 Mitchell. “He does for them what George Valle does for us. He gives them a lot of versatility.”
The Panthers had a four-game losing streak before winning all but one of its final nine games, including three-straight wins in the USA South Athletic Conference tournament.
“They don’t have a lot of size, but they play up-and-down so much that they don’t really rely on that,” Logie said. “They have a couple good 3-point shooters, as well.”
Along with Mitchell, LaGrange, located in LaGrange, Ga., has three other players who averaged double figures in scoring.
“We want to take away the rim and the open 3-point shots,” Logie said. “It will be important to challenge those shots in the mid-range area.”
In the middle of that game plan will be a guard who decided to drop to a lower division to finish his basketball career.
“It’s just been so much fun. It’s been like night day from what I experienced before,” Staudacher said. Transferring “was the best decision that I’ve ever made.”
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