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Whitworth men’s basketball earns at-large bid to Division III NCAA Tournament

UPDATED: Mon., March 2, 2020

Whitworth guard Ben College (4) looks to score as Whitman guard Nikola Trifunovic (40) defends during the first half of a college basketball game on Jan. 21, 2020, at Whitworth University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth guard Ben College (4) looks to score as Whitman guard Nikola Trifunovic (40) defends during the first half of a college basketball game on Jan. 21, 2020, at Whitworth University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Damion Jablonski gathered his Whitworth men’s basketball team Monday afternoon at center court at the Fieldhouse, where they had lost the Northwest Conference championship game two days before.

The head coach outlined the vision for the week, one that will culminate in at least one Division III Tournament game in Texas.

Then, assistant coach Elijah Gurash set a ladder under the basket, Jablonski turned on “We Are The Champions,” and the Pirates players cut down the net, one strand at a time.

Two teams had cut down nets after a victory over Whitworth in the last 10 days: Linfield did it after beating Whitworth to clinch a share of the regular-season title, and Saturday the Whitman Blues cut down the other net at the Fieldhouse following its victory in NWC Tournament.

So, Jablonski wanted to offer his team the opportunity to celebrate a 21-6 season, a conference co-championship and now a chance to play again in the NCAA Tournament.

“We lost to Linfield when we won the regular season championship, but we were on the road anyway so we didn’t get to feel accomplished,” Jablonski said, “and obviously we didn’t win the tournament championship. Hopefully they have a chance to feel accomplished.”

The Pirates saw their name revealed in the tournament bracket on Monday morning, reaching the 64-team field as an at-large team.

The Pirates will open against the LeTourneau University (Texas) YellowJackets at 3 p.m. Friday in Richardson, Texas. It marks Whitworth’s 13th appearance in the last 14 tournaments after being left out of the field a year ago. It is LeTourneau’s second such appearance ever.

Jablonski said coaches, administrators and senior Ben College watched the selection show together in his office. Senior Garrett Hull said he woke up early, the anticipation too much, and watched from his house with his roommate.

“(Whitworth’s name) came on and we started jumping around. It was awesome,” Hull said. “We get a second wind, and I feel wonderful.”

The other game in the four-team pod features the University of Texas-Dallas Comets (21-6), the hosts, and the Centenary (Louisiana) Gents. Centenary (18-9) won the Southern Collegiate Athletics Conference and lost early in the season to LeTourneau, 99-83.

The winners of the two first-round games will play at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

LeTourneau (23-5) and UT-Dallas are both members of the American Southwest Conference. The Comets swept their two-game season series but lost in the ASC tournament semifinals. The YellowJackets won that tournament – for the first time in program history – to secure a postseason bid; the Comets got in as an at-large selection.

While Whitworth has never played LeTourneau, the two programs did share one opponent this season: Whitman, which LeTourneau beat 111-105 in Belton, Texas, on Dec. 28.

Whitworth went 1-2 against Whitman this season, winning the second of the three games.

UT-Dallas, a potential second-round opponent, is more familiar to Whitworth: The Comets beat the Pirates 88-79 last season at a tournament in San Antonio.

Whitman (20-7) will also travel for the first two rounds. The Blues open against Wisconsin-Eau Claire in a four-team pod hosted by Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The Pirates lost 77-75 to UW-Eau Claire in a St. Louis-based tournament last November.

After the net cutting Monday, coaches attached a new one and the Pirates got back to practicing, something they weren’t sure they would have another chance to do this season after Saturday night’s loss.

It is unlikely they will host any games later in the tournament, but at this point, they are just happy that their season continues, College said.

“I think we’re just really grateful and thankful to be in this spot and even have a chance to play,” College said. “We’re not thinking about like ‘Oh, dang, we gotta travel to Texas.’ But more like ‘We get to travel to Texas.’ ”

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