Blues Edge Pirates in OT for Tourney Title - Feb 27, 2017
Let it be known in the oxygen tents, in the clogged lines to the defibrillator, between the gulps of smelling salts
To fans of Whitman basketball who wonder how they'll possibly recover from the madness inflicted upon them by the second-ranked Blues in the Northwest Conference tournament championship game at the Sherwood Center here Saturday, unsure whether to trust the scoreboard declaring that Whitman indeed won its first-ever title, 86-83, over fourth-ranked Whitworth in overtime
Down 10 points with 5:31 left in regulation?
Down eight with 4:46 left?
Down four with 2:37 left in overtime?
Whitman wanted it that way.
Let it be known, said junior Jase Harrison (6'3''-G-94), that the protracted, agonizing stare-down with defeat on the brink of the program's first tournament title, against an arch nemesis looking to win its 11th consecutive tourney title - 11! -- "was what we needed."
Maybe that will help with the hyperventilating, that they "needed" a test.
Added sophomore Austin Butler: "This prepared us for the (national) tournament."
Maybe that will wake the fainted.
"We needed a game where we got pushed," Whitman head coach Eric Bridgeland said. "We needed to face adversity.
"You had two top-five teams, two rivals, playing the biggest game in the country. How do you beat it?"
What comes next will answer that question. In extending the longest single-season winning streak in NWC history -- and by remaining the only undefeated NCAA basketball team, at any level, in the country -- Whitman (27-0) added to an already-compelling case that it deserves every perk of a top overall seed in the NCAA Division III national tournament. The bracket, including first-round sites, will be announced Monday morning. First-round games are Friday.
The Blues will then have a road map to what, if anything, could "beat" what they conjured on Saturday.
The winning points came with :39.8 seconds left in overtime. Jojo Wiggins (6'6''-F) had backed into the paint for a basket in heavy traffic to open the extra session and give Whitman a 76-74 lead, but Drew Sears' emphatic dunk -- Whitworth's third crowd-hushing slam of the game -- tied it with 3:41 left. And then Kyle Roach (6'5''-G) had made two free throws to put the Bucs up 78-76. And then Kenny Love made two more free throws for an 80-76 lead, and for what seemed like the dozenth time Saturday the Blues were bracing for a tumble off their undefeated high wire into a safety net that disappears entirely when the national tourney begins.
"No matter what, we know we can fall back on each other," said Wiggins. "That's what 'FAB' stands for: Fighting As Brothers. Everyone got to see that on display."
Whitman's Jack Stewart (6'2''-G) cracked a 3-pointer from Touchet to make it a one-point game. It was back to a two-point deficit on the Blues' next trip when Butler found Wiggins hovering along the baseline for a layup and foul, his free throw completing a three-point play and securing an 82-81 lead.
Christian Jurlina (6'5''-F, college: Whitworth) sliced into the lane and kissed a shot off the glass to put Whitworth (23-4) up 83-82 with 52 seconds left.
"We were ready," said Butler. "We've been tested. We knew that our love and our camaraderie would carry us."
Whitman brought the ball up the floor. A deep 3-pointer was launched, too strong, and caromed high off the back rim. A mass of bodies elevated, a storm front ready to soak the glass.
"I think what really separates us in close games is that we just play harder and we just trust each other more," said junior Tim Howell, who led all scorers with 30 points.
Butler, who teammates claim has a 60-inch vertical leap, plays like he has a vendetta against drag, gravity, friction and other petty limitations on the airspace around the rim. From somewhere -- no one afterwards could recall -- he swooped through and over the upsurging tangle of would-be rebounders, like a gargoyle in custom Kobe 7's, and tapped the ball off the glass, through the basket.
"It was a blur," Butler said, "it" being he.
"I don't know where he came from," said Harrison.
"He came out of nowhere," speculated Wiggins.
From nowhere or elsewhere than nowhere, Whitman had the lead for good. The Pirates coughed up their 26th turnover of the game with 13.6 seconds left and had to foul. Summoned hence to the free throw line, Joey Hewitt (6'1''-G) calmly swished two free throws with eight seconds remaining.
Whitworth weaved a shooter free deep behind the left arc, and Ben College's 3-point look at the buzzer was true but short.
"I wouldn't have scripted it any other way," said Butler, who had six assists.
"Man Hooo," Wiggins said. "I can't describe this."
It was 36-all at half, but felt even closer. There were seven ties and 11 lead changes. A 12-2 run by the Blues, staking them a 20-11 lead eight minutes, thirty seconds in, was all but erased by a 12-3 Pirate response to the 7:32 mark, tying it at 23-all. The tying basket -- Benjamin Nick (6'9''-G-97) grabbing a miss and elevating to savor a two-handed flush -- was emblematic of Whitworth's half. The Pirates had familiar trouble with Whitman's pressure (14 turnovers), but manhandled the hosts 23-14 on the glass.
Point guards led their squads. Howell, the NWC Player of the Year, had 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting. Whitworth's Love, the 2015 POY, had 10.
Whitman scored eight unanswered points to open the second half, but Roach (16 points) and Love (21) spearheaded a 15-2 Whitworth run that tilted momentum until the final minutes. Howell scored 11 of the Blues' final 16 points, including a go-ahead scoop with 1:13 left in regulation.
Love answered by burying a pull-up 3, Butler in his grille, from 28 feet out with 41 seconds left.
Wiggins erased Whitworth's 74-72 lead by making two free throws with 15.3 seconds left.
A would-be game-winning 3-point heave by Love sailed over the rim at the regulation horn.
Stewart was 4 for 4 on 3-pointers and had 12 points and seven rebounds for the winners. Wiggins scored 15 points and blocked two shots. Hewitt had 13 points. Harrison added eight points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Whitman has now won five straight games against Whitworth, dating back to an 87-71 conference victory on Feb. 2, 2016 in Walla Walla.
The victory Saturday was its first, ever, over Whitworth in the conference tournament.
NWC Tournament Final: Whitman - Whitworth 86-83, OT
NWC Tournament Semifinals:
Whitworth - Linfield 76-64
Whitman - George Fox 105-75
Courtesy of Whitman Athletics