Clutch shot by Hernandez lifts Whitworth to NCAA tournament win

Whitworth comes up short, bows out of NCAA Tournament

RICHARDSON, Texas – Isaiah Hernandez hit a short jumper in the key to lift Whitworth University to an 88-86 win over LeTourneau University in the first round of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament on Friday night at the University of Texas-Dallas.

The Pirates (22-6) survived a 51-point effort by the Yellow Jacket’s Nate West to win an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2015.  West scored 39 points in the second half for LeTourneau (23-6), including the final 22 points of the game for his squad.

Ben College scored 33 points to lead Whitworth, helping the Pirates build 15-point leads in each half.

“Advancing to the second round isn’t something my teammates and I have been able to do,” College said.  “Right now we’re just feeling pure joy.”

Leading 15-13 seven minutes into the opening half, Whitworth went on a 13-4 run to open a 28-17 advantage.  Garrett Hull and Liam Fitzgerald opened the run with three-pointers and College ended it with a trey.  Hull drove for a basket to put the Pirates ahead 34-19 with 5:27 left, the Bucs largest lead of the first half.  LeTourneau was able to claw back to within 38-31 at halftime after West hit a pair of free throws in the final minute.

West came into the game averaging 28 points per contest and had 12 at the break, but made only four of his 12 field goal attempts and went 0-5 from beyond the arc.  Many of his struggles came with the 6’-6” Fitzgerald guarding him on the perimeter.

After the Yellow Jackets cut the margin to 40-35 early in the second, Whitworth scored six straight to rebuild a double-digit lead.  When Hernandez scored a layup with 10:31 to go, the Pirates had rebuilt their lead to 61-46.  The advantage was still 71-58 with 6:45 to go when West took over, scoring 26 of his team’s final 28 points.

Whitworth still led 81-71 with under a minute to play, but the Pirates made only 5-10 free throws in the final 57 seconds.  Meanwhile West converted a four-point play to get the Yellow Jackets within three and scored a game-tying basket with 7.7 seconds left.

After a timeout Hernandez took the inbounds, drove the length of the floor and hit a short, well-contested jumper in the key with 1.5 seconds left.  LeTourneau was without a timeout and had trouble inbounding the ball.  A length-of-the-floor attempt was no good.

“I just tried to get to the rim,” Hernandez said afterwards about his game-winning shot.  “I was lucky enough to get the shot I wanted.”

Whitworth played the game it wanted for 38 minutes, making 48% of its shots from the field and 35% of its three-pointers.  The Pirates outrebounded the Yellow Jackets 46-40.  Yet the Pirates needed the Hernandez basket to survive and advance.

“This team has been all about staying together, weathering storms and remaining positive, even when things are going against us,” said head coach Damion Jablonski.  “Tonight was a great example of that.  I’m just really proud of this team.”

West finished the game 18 of 39 from the floor and 5-17 from beyond the arc.  He was 8-10 at the free throw line.  Justin Moore was the only other Yellow Jacket in double figures with 11 points.

“Nate is an incredible player,” Jablonski said.  “It took everything we had to survive his talent down the stretch because we didn’t have answers for him.  We are lucky the clock ran out when it did.”

College made 11 of 23 from the field for the Pirates and was 9-10 at the free throw line for his 33 points.  His three-pointer in the first half was his 93rd of the season, a new single-season mark for the Pirates.  He also reached 1,839 points in his career to move into second place on Whitworth’s all-time scoring list.

Hernandez scored 20 points in only 18 minutes after getting two fouls in the opening half and playing only 5:30 in the first period.  Fitzgerald had 16 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots.

Whitworth’s last NCAA win was 88-60 over LaGrange (Ga.) in the opening round of the tournament in Atlanta.  The Pirates will play their second round game on Saturday night at 7:30 pm (CT) against either UT-Dallas or Centenary (La.).