Fifteenth-ranked Whitworth stared down a furious rally to defeat visiting Puget Sound 71-68 in the Northwest Conference Tournament Championship game on Saturday night.
The Pirates (22-5) earned their eighth consecutive conference tournament crown and will advance to the NCAA Division III tournament for the ninth time since 2003. The Loggers finish the season 15-12.
Down by three points (68-65), the momentum running away along with a 14-point halftime lead, the Whitworth men's basketball team was in serious trouble with 2:32 to play. But Pirate seniors Dustin McConnell and Colton McCargar answered the call and scored the final six points to give Whitworth the win.
"I couldn't be prouder of Dustin and Colton for the way they stepped up at the end of the game," said Pirate head coach Matt Logie. "It's the way you want seniors of their ability to play, but not everyone is capable of doing it the way they did."
The fact that it came down to the final possessions was a credit to the visiting Loggers. Whitworth controlled the first half by shooting 56% from the floor and outrebounding UPS 17-14. McCargar scored 13 points in the first half and the Pirates never trailed. Leading 24-21 with seven minutes to go, Whitworth closed the half on a 16-5 run. McCargar had half of those final points and Christian Jurlina scored just before the buzzer to give the Bucs a 40-26 lead heading to the locker rooms.
Puget Sound chipped away throughout the second half. Nick Holden's free throws pulled the Loggers within 48-42, but McCargar answered with a three-pointer. Erin Barber's three-pointer got UPS within 53-50, but McConnell hit his own three for a 58-52 Pirate lead. The Loggers continued to come, tying the game 58-58 on Rex Nelson's free throws with six minutes left.
When McCargar hit his final three for a 65-61 Pirate advantage, it appeared Whitworth might've taken the Loggers' best shot. But that was still to come. James Osorio scored five straight to give UPS its 68-65 lead with 2:32 left in the game, forcing a Whitworth timeout. Those would be the Loggers' final points of the game.
"We said to the guys during the timeout that it was a one-possession game and we've been here plenty of times before," Logie said. "Our guys never panicked and the seniors did what they've done so many times before."
After an exchange of possessions, McConnell drove to the hole for a layup to get the Bucs within one point. After a defensive stop, McCargar nailed a long two-point jumper to give Whitworth the lead with 53 seconds left. Another strong defensive stand led to a rebound by George Valle and McCargar was fouled with 13.7 seconds left. He calmly made both for the final margin. Puget Sound did not get a good look at a three and had to hoist a long attempt before time expired.
McCargar led all players with 25 points and he also led the Pirates with seven rebounds. McConnell dished seven assists and scored 15, and in the process became the 24th player in Whitworth history to surpass 1,000 career points. He has 1,002. Christian Jurlina added 13 points while Valle finished with 10. Whitworth survived despite making only 33% of its shots in the second half.
Four Loggers scored in double figures, led by Barber's 15 points. Holden posted a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards. Nelson and Osorio scored 11 points each. UPS outrebounded Whitworth 23-14 in the second half to finish with a 37-31 edge on the boards.
Whitworth's win is its 12th in a row over the Loggers, and fourth straight in an NWC tournament final since 2008.
Whitworth now awaits word on the date, location and time of its opening game in the 2014 NCAA Division III tournament. That information will be announced on Monday morning.