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After impressive start, Whitworth basketball hits the road for pair of tough tests

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Coming off a significant home victory last week, the Whitworth men’s basketball team is on the road this weekend with a chance to get two more.

The 4-0 Pirates will open the Lopata Classic in St. Louis against 3-0 Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Friday. On Saturday, they will face either Coe College (2-1) or host Washington University (2-1), which is ranked No. 7 in the d3hoops.com preseason poll.

“You only know your Friday opponent, so you have a really quick turnaround, and you’re guaranteed to play a really good team,” first-year coach Damion Jablonski said before practice Wednesday. “In a lot of ways it parallels what you’ll see in the NCAA Tournament.”

Anything less than a return to the Division III tournament would be a disappointment for the Pirates, who beefed up their nonconference slate this year to boost their strength of schedule. But it is one thing to schedule top opponents and quite another to beat them, as Whitworth did Saturday, ousting 15th-ranked St. Thomas 85-64 at the Fieldhouse.

Two nights earlier, St. Thomas (2-1) defeated 20th-ranked Whitman, the Pirates’ primary Northwest Conference rival, 87-79.

“They’re very talented,” junior guard Isaiah Hernandez said of St. Thomas. “We just really came in and locked in on their shooters and put together as much of a complete game (as we have) from the defensive end. … Once we started moving the ball a little more, we felt good on offense, and the defense stayed consistent throughout the game.”

The Pirates have grabbed 37 more rebounds than their opponents and distributed nearly twice as many assists (75 to 38) through four games.

They have also held opponents to 33% shooting this year. Last season, Whitworth’s opponents shot 46.5% from the floor.

“I think it starts with the defensive end. We’ve been really strong,” Hernandez said. “And the best thing is, we still have a lot of room to grow there, which is exciting.”

The Pirates’ scoring is more widely distributed than last season, when Kyle Roach and Ben College accounted for 42.1% of the team’s scoring.

With Roach graduated and College a senior, eight Whitworth players are averaging at least six points per game. College (21.5 ppg) leads the way, followed by Hernandez (14.0) and senior Jordan Lester (13.3). College and Hernandez’s total accounts for 37.4% of their scoring.

“We’ve had a lot of contributions from a lot of guys,” Hernandez said. “We’re finding a lot more weapons than we have in the past.”

Wisconsin-Eau Claire relies on an eight-man rotation led by senior Cole Rabedeaux, who is averaging 17.7 points per game.

After the Lopata Classic, Whitworth plays an exhibition game at Carroll (Montana) College on Nov. 30. Its next home game is against Mary Washington (4-1) on Dec. 16.

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