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Whitman uses second-half surge to down Whitworth in Northwest Conference Tournament title game

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 29, 2020

Whitworth guard Isaiah Hernandez tries to pass around a Whitman defender during the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Spokane. (Whitworth Athletics / Courtesy)
Whitworth guard Isaiah Hernandez tries to pass around a Whitman defender during the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Spokane. (Whitworth Athletics / Courtesy)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The ladder waited under the basket, and the Whitworth Pirates sat across the court, heads down on the home bench.

Meanwhile, the Whitman Blues hugged, hooted and posed for a team photo on the Whitworth Fieldhouse floor before ascending that ladder, in turn, to snip away at the net.

Pirates players left the court at the snap of the photo but were there long enough to hear the Blues announced as Northwest Conference Tournament champions after an 86-80 victory Saturday night.

Now the Pirates will see whether their 21-6 record and résumé is enough to reach the Division III Tournament, not as an automatic qualifier but as an at-large selection.

“We’ll hold out some hope, but I think it’s pretty unlikely at this point. But there is still a chance,” Whitworth coach Damion Jablonski said. “We’ll wake up Monday morning and pray that we get an opportunity, but we’ll be prepared that we won’t.”

The Blues (20-7), on the other hand, certainly needed this victory to continue their season.

They got it largely by shooting 61.3% in the second half, erasing an eight-point halftime deficit and turning around the game with a 20-3 run. They fueled it with steals they didn’t get in the first half and outstanding performances by their three top scorers: junior Darne Duckett and seniors Andrew Vickers and Jaron Kirkley, who combined for 73 points.

“There was a stretch where we did not play our best,” Pirates senior Sam Lees said. “We had turnovers, we had bad shots, and we left guys we shouldn’t leave wide open, wide open, and they hit 3s. A run like that, and you go from having the advantage to playing from behind, and against any good team, playing from behind is really difficult.”

Once the Blues took that lead, they boosted it to 10 and never gave it all back.

The Pirates built a first-half lead by hitting 9 of 18 3-point attempts, including a 4-of-6 start from long range by senior Ben College, the NWC Player of the Year. He finished with 33 points and hit 7 of 12 3-pointers.

But inside shots were harder to come by, specifically from junior Isaiah Hernandez, who missed his first eight attempts before finally sinking a basket – a step-back 3 – with 34 seconds to go in the half. That gave the Pirates their largest lead, 39-31.

After halftime, some of those driving shots did fall for Hernandez, but he finished just 4 of 15 from the field and scored 10 points. Lees, who came in shooting 58.3% from the field, hit 5 of 11 attempts for 11 points.

After the break, the Blues attacked the basket while also hitting 7 of 13 3s. And after forcing just four Whitworth turnovers in the first half, the Blues converted eight second-half Pirates turnovers into 13 points.

“We just didn’t handle the ball very well for a while,” Jablonski said, “They’re a great one-on-one team, and we did not get one-on-one stops, which is something that we did very well when we were down in Walla Walla,” referring to the Pirates’ 87-82 win there on Feb. 18.

The Pirates kept within striking distance. Sophomore Liam Fitzgerald, who had his way with Pacific Lutheran in Thursday’s semifinal, hit three 3-pointers in the second half, including back-to-back makes to cut the Blues’ lead to 71-69 with just under 7 minutes left.

The Blues committed turnovers on their next three possessions, but the Pirates didn’t capitalize. After the first turnover, Hernandez missed a 3. After each of the next two, Fitzgerald turned it over.

The score remained 71-69 with 4:49 remaining.

Those were the Pirates’ last three opportunities to tie until the final 90 seconds. With Whitman ahead 80-77, College drove to the basket, missed and didn’t get a foul call. The Blues hit 6 of 8 free-throw attempts from there to claim their third NWC Tournament championship in the last four seasons.

Now the Pirates wait, just as they did after losing the tournament title game 107-102 last year at Whitman. The 64-team field – with 19 at-large bids available – will be announced at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Last year, their name wasn’t in the bracket. They hope it will be different this time.

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