SPOKANE, Wash. – Five and counting.
Whitworth held off visiting Whitman 79-76 on Tuesday night to clinch its fifth consecutive Northwest Conference men's basketball title.
The 13th-ranked Pirates improved to 20-4 overall and 14-1 in the NWC. The Missionaries dropped to 16-8, 11-4. Each team will finish the regular season with a game at Lewis & Clark this weekend. The Bucs will play on Friday night.
"Regular season league titles are the hardest kind of championships to win in sports," said head coach Matt Logie. "To grind it out over the course of two months, both on the road and at home, shows a lot of team character and great leadership by our seniors."
The milestones are plentiful. Whitworth has reached 20 victories in a season for the ninth straight year. The Bucs are currently riding a ten-game winning streak – the fifth straight season for that accomplishment. Whitworth's NWC crown is the seventh in the last eight years and 16th overall since 1982.
But it wasn't easy. The Pirates led the entire first half, but could never break clear of Whitman. Christian Jurlina's three-pointer gave the Bucs their largest lead of the first half (29-22) before the Missionaries fought back to within 32-30 on Ben Eisenhardt's basket. Whitworth would eventually take a 40-36 lead into the locker rooms.
The Pirates had the lead at halftime despite the fact that they shot only 40% (12-30) from the field in the opening period. But they were 12-15 at the free throw line. So while Whitman hit 48% (12-15), the Missionaries were 7-12 at the free throw line.
Whitworth appeared to be taking control of the game early in the second half, grabbing a 51-42 lead with 16:12 to play on Dustin McConnell's breakaway layup. But the Pirates would turn the ball over four times over the next four minutes and Whitman got within 51-48 on another Eisenhardt basket.
After the Bucs went back up 55-49 on a pair of free throws from Jurlina, the Missionaries went on a 13-6 spurt, capped by Clay Callahan's three-pointer, to grab a 62-61 lead – their only lead of the game. The Bucs scored the next six points, including McConnell's three-pointer, and led the rest of the way.
Whitman still wouldn't go quietly. Eisenhardt's three-point play cut the margin to 73-70 with 50 seconds to play. But the Pirates were able to make 6-8 at the free throw line in the final seconds to secure the win.
McConnell led Whitworth with 22 points, while Colton McCargar and Jurlina had 14 each. Jurlina also led the Bucs with seven rebounds. Whitworth hit 62% in the second half to finish the game 49% from the field.
Eisenhardt scored a season-high 30 points and grabbed six boards for Whitman. LuQuam Thompson came off of the bench for ten as the only other Whitman player in double figures. The Missionaries finished the game 49% from the floor.
Whitworth has now clinched the NWC's top seed in next week's conference tournament. The Pirates will host a semifinal on Thursday (Feb. 27) against the #4 seed, who is still to be determined. Should the Bucs win that game, they will host the conference tournament championship game on Saturday (March 1st).
Whitman can clinch the #2 seed and the right to host the other semifinal with a win over L&C on Saturday night.