The Whitworth University Pirates handed the No. 25 Tigers an 83-75 loss before 1,600 fans at the packed Whitworth Fieldhouse Saturday, bringing Occidental’s season to a close in the second round of the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Pirates (21-6) advance to play Wheaton College (Ill.) in the sectional semi-finals in Holland, Mich., on March 14 while the Tigers, who made their fourth appearance in the playoffs in six years, flew home from Spokane with a 22-6 season record.
Saturday’s match up of conference players of the year turned out as expected: senior guard Connor Whitman, the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, finished with 23 points to lead Occidental while Northwest Conference Player of the Year Ryan Symes led Whitworth with 24 points.
Although the Tigers quickly found themselves behind after winning the opening tip-off, Oxy fought back behind Whitman to score eight unanswered points in the final two minutes to take a 38-33 halftime lead.
"In the first 20 minutes we played one of the best halves of the season," said Head Coach Brian Newhall ‘83. "It was on the road against a tough opponent and we did exactly what we wanted to do."
Unfortunately. the lead was short-lived for Oxy.
After Huston Conti ’09 hit a three-pointer 40 seconds into the second half, the Pirates came back strong with a 13-0 run and opened up a 48-41 lead with just under 14 minutes to play – a lead they would not relinquish for the remainder of the game.
Senior forward Joe Sasich hit a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 59-53 with seven and a half to go for Oxy, but Symes sparked a 9-1 run that put Whitworth up by 14 points, the largest lead of the game, with 3:52 to play.
The Tigers continued to claw behind eight points from Conti in the final minute, but perfection at the line for the Pirates sealed the victory. Sending Whitworth to the free-throw line with the hopes of grabbing a rebound did not work for the Tigers, as five Pirates combined to knock down 20 of 20 free-throws.
"Whitworth is a very well disciplined team all around," Whitman said afterwards. "They just don’t make mistakes at home, which makes them tough to beat."
Whitman finished the night, and his Oxy career, shooting 5-for-15 from three-point range and 6-for-6 from the stripe while dishing out a team-leading six assists. "They did a good job of pressuring Whitman tonight," said Newhall. "You have to give them all the credit in the world for pressing and wearing us down and covering up. They made it difficult for him, especially in the second half."
Occidental shot 42.6% from the field overall, going just 13-for-33 in the second half. The Tigers were 46.4% from three-point range.
Conti finished the night shooting 5-for-7 from beyond the arc, pouring in 18 points and grabbing six rebounds, while forward Chris Hunt ’08 came off of the bench for 14 points and eight rebounds. Sasich added eight on 3-for-4 shooting while playing a key defensive role. Senior forward Chris Pitcher pulled down six rebounds for the Tigers.
Whitworth shot 51% overall from the field making 26 of 51 shots, including an 11-for-22 performance from behind the arc.
Symes was 9-for-13 from the field, going 2-for-2 from beyond the arc and 4-for-4 from the line. The Pirates’ freshman phenom David Riley added 19 points, including 5-for-8 from three point range. Colin Willemsen finished with 15 points and Ross Nakamura tallied 11 points while handing out a game-high eight assists.
"You have to defend the Whitworth perimeter shooting if you want to have a chance. We did that well in the first half, but they got rolling in the second half," said Newhall.
Both teams took care of the ball, combining for just nine turnovers. Occidental forced the Pirates -- ranked fourth in the nation for the fewest turnovers per game -- to turn the ball over six times. Pitcher, Whitman, Conti and Gyan Alexander ’10 each got a steal for the Tigers.
All seven Oxy seniors stepped out on the court against Whitman. Gemayal McBride shot 2-for-3 with an assist. John Impelman grabbed a pair of rebounds and added two points for Oxy. Henry Meier recorded a rebound and a block that led to an Alexander lay-up. Jordan Schultz ’09 also saw action for the Tigers.