Whitman's Josh Duckworth threads the needle between Whitworth's Michael Taylor, left, and Clay Bebbers for two points Tuesday night at George Ball Court.
Whitman Men's basketball head coach Eric Bridgeland comes up empty- handed in his opposition to a close call that went against the Missionaries Tuesday night against unbeaten and nationally ranked Whitworth.
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WALLA WALLA - As the second half opened in Northwest Conference men's basketball action Tuesday night, Whitworth, the No. 1-ranked Division III team in the nation, looked ready to pull away from rival Whitman with an 11-2 run to lead 66-45 with 17 minutes to play.
But the Missionaries weren't done yet and answered the charge with a run of their own - led by 16 second-half points from Josh Duckworth - to post one of the bigger upsets at George Ball Court.
As the buzzer sounded and the fans rushed the court, Whitman posted an 82-79 win.
"It's all courage and heart," said an elated Eric Bridgeland, Whitman's head coach. "Possession by possession, they made it back in the game. We fought the whole way."
And fight the Missionaries did.
Whitman drew first blood with a long 3-pointer off Brandon Shaw, but the Pirates answered and took off on a 13-5 run to lead 16-5 just six minutes in.
But Whitman pushed back and fought to a 21-all tie off a 2 by Ryan Gilkey. Another Shaw 2 pushed them ahead for the second time in the game, 23-21.
From there, Whitworth led throughout the first-half shooting contest, but was never able to shake the Missionaries and went into the half with a 52-41 lead.
"This team is really, really good," Bridgeland said of the Pirates. "They're one of the best DIII teams, ever. Our guys never lost faith."
As Whitworth cruised out to a 21-point lead in the first four minutes of the second half, the white-clad fans in the Whitman student section could be forgiven for leaving early.
But the volume just increased.
"The energy in here tonight was unbelievable," Bridgeland said, as fans congratulated him on the win. "This is the greatest crowd we've ever had here. It was so loud I could barely think."
The fans wore white to celebrate white-out conditions on the court, best illuminated with the late flurry of Missionary shots.
Duckworth hit the first of his four second-half treys with 15 minutes to play, cutting the lead to 66-48.
From there, it was the Missionaries' show.
Whitman went on a 17-13 charge, closing the gap to 77-65 with six minutes to play.
And Whitworth never found net again.
Duckworth led a 17-0 run with two 3s, Drew Raher had a layin, Ignas Pavilonis had a trey and Shaw posted three points to move it to 79-76, Whitworth advantage.
Duckworth hit another try to tie it at 79-all with a minute on the clock.
Shaw was fouled and went 1-for-2 at the line for the third Missionary lead with less than 30 seconds to play.
The Pirates missed their next two shots and a final foul on Duckworth sealed their fate and the game, as he went 2-for-2 with 16 seconds to go for the 82-79 lead.
The Missionaries grabbed their own board - one of 43 on the night, while Whitworth had 30 - to wind the clock down and bring the frenzied fans onto the court.
"I think they just missed shots," Bridgeland said of Whitworth. "They're so good. They missed and we didn't."
Duckworth's 24 points capped a week in which he was named NWC student-athlete of the week. His points and team-leading eight boards were both season highs.
It was Whitworth's first defeat of the season and moves them to 23-1 overall and 14-1 in the NWC. They're still the top seed in the NWC.
Tuesday's victory extends the Missionaries' (18-6, 11-4) win streak to eight games. If they defeat Pacific on Friday in their final regular-season game, they clinch a first-round home playoff game against Lewis & Clark.