WALLA WALLA - Despite trailing throughout most of the game, Whitman managed to grab a 79-76 first-round Northwest Conference playoff win over Lewis & Clark Thursday night at Sherwood Center.
The Missionaries trailed by 10 at the half and 12 early in the second half, but the Pioneers couldn't bury them for the win, which puts the Missionaries within one game of their first-ever NCAA Division III national tournament appearance.
Whitman has to defeat NWC's No. 1 team Whitworth for the second time this season on Saturday to earn an automatic berth to the national tourney.
Whitman put together a 15-4 run, culminating with Ryan Gilkey going 2-for-2 from the free-throw line, to move it within one at 57-56, midway through the second half.
Then, Brandon Shaw nailed a perfect 3-pointer from the center of the arc for the first Whitman lead of the night at 59-57 with nine minutes remaining.
"We made adjustments and worked on our togetherness," said Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland. "The crowd was electric and the guys kept fighting."
The rest of the game was a back-and-forth affair, with L&C's Marcus Wells - who went 9-for-15 in the first half and 14-for-29 in the game to lead all scorers with 37 points - missing his next three shots as Whitman went on a 9-5, two-minute run.
All five of L&C's points came from Kelly Edwards' free throws. Edwards went 5-for-6 in those two minutes and 12-for-14 on the night.
Wells recharged his shooting touch, nailing back-to-back 3s for a 76-75 L&C lead with 50 seconds to go.
But it proved to be the Pioneers' final lead and last points on the night as Shaw went 5-for-6 from the free-throw line with under a minute to go as Whitman built a 77-76 lead.
Wells grabbed a rebound and bolted downcourt - only to have the ball swatted away by David Michaels, much to the Whitman student section's delight.
Justin Artis recovered the swat only to be fouled. Artis went 2-for-2 from the line for a 79-76 lead.
After a missed L&C layin, Whitman's Michaels was fouled and went 0-for-2 from the stripe, missing the shots that could've promised a win - but Edwards' last-ditch, half-court shot on the board found only air. Edwards had 26 points on the night.
"This gives us a big stepping stone," Artis, a senior Tacoma product, said. "It gives us momentum."
The Pioneers, led by Wells, put on a shooting clinic in the first half, shooting 47.4 percent, while the Missionaries held them to just 22.6 percent in the second.
"There's 40 minutes in the game, and we knew we had 20 minutes left (after the half, when Whitman was down 10)," Artis said. "Possession by possession, we got it done. That's been our motto this season."
Whitman held L&C to 31 rebounds on the night, while grabbing 51 of its own.
The stat was basically tied in the first half, with Whitman ahead, 18-17.
"That's a huge effort-stat," Bridgeland said. "That energy is the story of the game for us."
Four Missionaries were in double-digit scoring. Shaw dropped in 15 points, Jordan Dickson had 14 and Michaels and Josh Duckworth had 13 each.
The Missionaries split with Lewis & Clark in the regular season and earned homecourt advantage by handing Whitworth its only defeat of the season last week.
"Lewis & Clark is really, really good," Bridgeland said. "They're literally one of the best-coached teams I've ever been around. We made adjustments to get them."
Now the focus is on Saturday's 7 p.m. game at Whitworth, which dropped from the No. 1 to No. 2 Division III team in the country after an 82-79 loss to Whitman last week, its only loss of the season.
Whitworth defeated Pacific Lutheran, 74-63, Thursday night.
"If you're not playing full-throttle basketball at this time of the season, when an automatic tournament berth is on the line, then you're in the wrong sport," Bridgeland said of the upcoming rematch.
Whitman 79, Lewis & Clark 76
LEWIS & CLARK (76) - Wells 14-29 5-5 37, Taylor 4-13 0-0 11, Pisapia 0-3 0-0 0, Meeuwsen 1-4 0-0 2, Edwards 6-14 12-14 26, Perconti 0-4 0-0 0, Sims 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-69 17-19 76.
WHITMAN (79) - Shaw 4-6 5-6 15, Artis 3-8 3-3 9, Michaels 6-7 1-5 13, Clark 1-7 0-0 3, Raher 6-11 0-0 14, Dickson 0-1 0-0 0, Duckworth 5-11 2-2 7, Pavilonis 1-5 0-0 3, Wright 0-0 0-0 0, Gilkey 3-4 3-4 9. Totals 29-60 14-20 79.
Halftime score - L&C 46, Whit 36. 3-point goals - L&C 9-34 (Wells 4-14, Taylor 3-9, Edwards 2-4, Pisapia 0-2, Perconti 0-3, Sims 0-2), Whit 7-29 (Shaw 2-4, Raher 2-5, Clark 1-6, Duckworth 1-4, Pavilonis 1-5, Dickson 0-1). Total fouls - L&C 20, Whit 15. Fouled out - Wells (L&C). Technical fouls - none. Rebounds - L&C 31 (Taylor 9), Whit 51 (Shaw 7, Duckworth 7, Pavilonis 7). Turnovers - L&C 4, Whit 16. Assists - L&C 6 (Taylor 2), Whit 18 (Shaw 5).