A couple of months ago, the Whitworth Pirates lost three times in the span of five games.
Each game was close – the final difference no greater than six points – and on the road in difficult Division III men’s basketball atmospheres.
But since those losses the Pirates have lost just once in 14 Northwest Conference games. Again on Saturday they proved their mettle in the game’s final minutes, holding off the George Fox Bruins 83-76 on Senior Night at the Fieldhouse.
“We were in a lot of challenging games early, and we lost a couple … but we learned from it,” Pirates first-year head coach Damion Jablonski said. “Now there’s a certain amount of joy to it, not that we want to put ourselves in that spot, but when there’s 8 minutes or 4 minutes left and we’re in a huddle together, we’ve been here so many times, and this is what we do.
“We find a way.”
Whitworth improved to 19-4 overall and 13-1 in the Northwest Conference. It will look to avenge its only NWC loss this season when it visits the Whitman Blues (18-5, 13-1) on Tuesday.
The Blues and Pirates will visit Linfield (18-5, 12-2) next weekend to close out the regular season.
Whitworth’s active seniors will finish their careers without a loss to George Fox – the Pirates have won 13 straight in the series – but most of those games have been close. Including Saturday, the last five games have been decided by a total of 24 points, including two that went to overtime.
The Bruins (8-15, 4-10) trailed by three points at half and even snatched the lead for 40 seconds of the second half. They also forced three turnovers in the final 2 minutes, pulling within five points on two occasions. But they never got closer.
“They’re a great uptempo team, great at pressuring,” senior Ben College said. “When you struggle with pressure, that stuff tends to snowball a little bit, so that can result in 8-0, 10-0 runs for a team like Fox. So it’s a lot about minimizing those and being calm as a team.”
Whitworth hit its free throws down the stretch and finished 22 of 26 from the line. That included 8 of 9 from junior Isaiah Hernandez and a combined 12 of 13 from the senior trio of College, Garrett Hull and Sam Lees.
In all, those seniors combined for 51 points, led by Lees’ 25 on 10-of-15 shooting.
“There’s just been a clear uptick in confidence, and he’s playing his best basketball right now, which we need,” Hernandez said of Lees.
Over his past eight games, Lees has averaged 16 points per game, easing the pressure on College, who needs 13 more points to climb into third place on the program’s all-time career scoring list.
“Whether I draw a double-team or whatever happens, that’s not gonna result well for the other team,” College said, “because we’ve got so many other weapons, so many other guys playing great.”
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