The Whitworth Pirates continued a program tradition this week when senior Ben College was named the Northwest Conference’s Player of the Year.
On Thursday night, his own sophomore teammate outshone him.
Liam Fitzgerald played his most complete game of the season, matching career highs in scoring (16 points) and rebounds (14) to lead the top-seeded Whitworth men’s basketball team to an 87-57 victory over Pacific Lutheran at the Fieldhouse.
It was the Pirates’ 13th consecutive win in a Division III NWC semifinal, and it set up another matchup with third-seeded Whitman at 7 p.m. Saturday – this time at the Fieldhouse – for the conference tournament title.
Whitman beat Linfield 85-70 on the road Thursday night to advance in the other semifinal.
Against Pacific Lutheran, Whitworth hit seven of its first 12 shots – while holding PLU to a 2-of-14 start – to build a 20-5 lead with just under 12 minutes left in the first half. The Pirates’ lead never again slipped to single digits.
“Our team did a great job of playing under control offensively and letting things come to them, and then having urgency on the defensive end,” said Pirates coach Damion Jablonski, whose team committed 10 turnovers, its fewest in nine games.
College, who scored a career-high 44 points in a Feb. 1 victory at Pacific Lutheran in the regular season, led all scorers with 21 points and hit 4 of 5 3-point attempts, the ninth time this year he has made as many in a game.
But he was not everywhere on the court quite the way Fitzgerald was.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore recorded his second double-double of the year and also blocked four shots, had four assists and completed a steal-drive-and-dunk sequence late in the first half that fended off one of the Lutes’ many small runs.
“It’s awesome because of the variety of things that he can do,” College said of Fitzgerald. “He can shoot the ball when he’s open, he can drive to the rim … he can block shots, get dunks, grab rebounds. He’s a great all-around player, and I think that where he’s most valuable is doing a little bit of everything.”
Senior Sam Lees, named to the NWC’s second team on Wednesday, hit six of his first seven attempts on his way to 16 points, and junior Reed Brown added 12 points and four rebounds off the bench.
Brown also hit 2 of 4 3-point attempts and is 24 of 51 (47%) on the season.
“(Brown and I) can both do it all, so it’s kind of a tough mismatch,” said Fitzgerald, who is 20 of 48 from 3-point range this season. “Especially because a traditional ‘5’ doesn’t play outside, so our kind of game takes advantage of that.”
Pacific Lutheran cut Whitworth’s lead to 12 points with 15 minutes to go in the second half but didn’t get closer. All-NWC forward Leighton Kingma finished 5 of 14 from the floor after a 1-for-8 start. The senior scored a team-high 17 points for the Lutes, who finished the season 14-13.
“He’s a great player, really dynamic, a big guy who can shoot,” College said of Kingma. “He’s been a tough matchup for us, for anybody.”
The Pirates (21-5) turn their attention to the Blues (19-7), who won at the Fieldhouse 89-80 on Jan. 21. Whitworth evened the season series with an 87-82 victory at Whitman on Feb. 18.
The matchup – with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line – will be the programs’ sixth in an NWC Tournament championship game.
“It makes a difference,” Jablonski said of playing at home. “It’s hard playing in any road environment. I know our guys will be up for it.”
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