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Whitworth Pirates aiming to clinch NWC title this week

Ben College, right, and the Whitworth Pirates face showdown matchups against Whitman and Linfield this week with the Northwest Conference regular-season title up for grabs. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Ben College, right, and the Whitworth Pirates face showdown matchups against Whitman and Linfield this week with the Northwest Conference regular-season title up for grabs. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Three Whitworth men’s basketball players celebrated Senior Day last weekend, but none were particularly keen on the prospect of that being their final game at the Fieldhouse.

The Pirates sit at 13-1, tied atop the Northwest Conference standings with two games to play – yet a home game in the four-team NWC playoffs is far from guaranteed.

That’s because Whitworth (19-4 overall) still has to visit the other two top teams in the conference, starting with 13-1 Whitman on Tuesday night and concluding with third-place Linfield (12-2) on Saturday.

“It’s just one game at a time,” coach Damion Jablonski said. “We have to win both of them to do what we want to do.”

Last year, the Pirates hosted and beat Linfield in the NWC Tournament semifinals but lost the championship game 107-102 at Whitman, against a team they just haven’t been able to solve the last few years after dominating the rivalry – and the conference – for the better part of a decade.

And, without a signature win on their resume, having lost three times a year ago to Whitman, the Pirates weren’t invited to the Division III NCAA Tournament.

Whitman has won 11 of the last 12 games against Whitworth, including an 89-80 victory on Jan. 21 at the Fieldhouse.

But the Pirates remain confident, especially considering they led the Blues for stretches of that January contest.

“We felt like we were right there with them last game,” said senior Ben College, the NWC’s scoring leader at 22.3 points per game.

“The guys on this team have the talent and the hard work,” said fellow senior Sam Lees. “I think we’ve got all the pieces, and that makes me very confident we can win on Tuesday.”

Whitman, for its part, has looked vulnerable since the last time these teams met. The Blues saw their conference winning streak end at 67 games with a Feb. 8 loss at Lewis & Clark, 90-83.

On Friday, they held off George Fox, 100-94. Then on Saturday, the Blues let a 14-point halftime lead shrink to as little as one point with 5 seconds to go against Pacific before finishing with a 91-88 victory.

Meanwhile, the Pirates have won seven straight since the loss to the Blues, including a 98-95 victory over Linfield that is currently the difference between co-leading the conference and sitting safely in third.

Players insisted after the game that their approach would not change given the stakes of this week’s contests: that they would make adjustments as usual, but that when it comes down to it, they just need to play to their capabilities.

And while last year it turned out the Pirates needed to win the conference tournament’s automatic bid to ensure a spot in the tournament, a victory Tuesday – and another on Saturday against Linfield – would likely give them the resume to reach the postseason regardless of what happens in the NWC Tournament.

That’s largely because of a November victory over St. Thomas, which is 21-2 overall and the top-ranked team in the West Region in the rankings that help determine at-large bids. Whitworth is currently fourth in those West Region rankings – the only NWC in the top eight – which will be updated Wednesday.

Another victory would have an added bonus: It would extend Whitworth’s streak of consecutive 20-win seasons to 15.

“We just take it day by day like we have been. We’ve done a good job of that throughout the season,” said junior Isaiah Hernandez. “We haven’t looked ahead to any specific game. … It’s what we’ve been doing (all year).”

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