WALLA WALLA — Whitman College ran headlong into a nationally-ranked brick wall Thursday night.
Ben Eisenhardt’s 16 second-half points weren’t enough to overcome an 16-point halftime deficit as the Missionaries fell to St. Thomas, Minn., ranked No. 11 in the NCAA Division III preseason poll, 104-81. The game at George Ball Court on the Whitman campus was the season opener for both schools.
Eisenhardt, a 6-foot-10 junior transfer from Division I Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo), led all scorers with 22 points and pulled down eight rebounds to finish just two grabs shy of a double-double.
“We did a good job getting him the ball in the second half,” Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland said. “There’s no doubt he sparked us. He played well.”
Eisenhardt’s production in the paint helped draw the Missionaries within 10, 76-66, with 8:32 left to play in the second half. But the Tommies quickly rebuilt a 21-point lead and kept Whitman at arm’s length for the remainder of the evening as they cruised to victory.
The Missionaries struggled to keep pace with the Tommies all night, hitting 47 percent of their shots to 65 percent for St. Thomas. Whitman especially struggled from deep, where it managed to match St. Thomas’ seven 3-point buckets but had to take twice as many shots — 26 — to get there.
“I think it’s a tribute to (St. Thomas’) defense,” Bridgeland said of his team’s struggles. “I think they’re really, really good. They play great 1-on-1 defense, they have good help, they’re very long.”
St. Thomas did the majority of its damage in the transition game, as the undersized, but athletic, Tommies frequently broke Whitman’s full-court pressure to find easy layins.
St. Thomas, picked to win the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference in the league’s preseason coaches poll, finished 2011-12 at 22-7 overall and won the MIAC tournament before falling in the second round of the NCAA tournament. All five starters returned from that team.
The Tommies won a national title in 2011 and their 105 victories over the past four seasons are the most in Division III history.
“They returned 10-of-the-11 guys that won the national championship two years ago, and it showed,” Bridgeland said. “They were that good.”
But Whitman scored first, with Matt Mounier making an easy layup off the opening tip and an assist from Josh Duckworth.
The teams traded buckets until a Ryan Gilkey tip-in gave the Missionaries a 11-10 lead.
St. Thomas built a five-point lead at 18-13 thanks to a trey by Marcus Alipate, but Whitman scrabbled back to tie the match at 20 with 11:30 remaining in the first.
It was all Tommies from there, however.
Noah Kaiser hit a 3-pointer to key a 19-6 rally over the next nine minutes.
A 3-pointer from Will DeBerg, who led the Tommies with 22 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including a 3-for-5 mark from 3, sent St. Thomas into the half with a 48-32 lead.
St. Thomas quickly extended its lead to 21, 57-36, with a Tommy Hannon bucket at the 17:01 mark of the second half, putting a damper on Whitman’s hopes of an upset.
The Missionaries weren’t quite ready to let the door slam shut, however.
Eisenhardt layered four layups around a jumper from Jackson Clough to pull Whitman within 14, 63-49, with 13:37 left.
St. Thomas answered with a 3 from Alipate but Whitman wasn’t quieted, and was on the verge of narrowing the deficit to single digits when Clay Callahan sank a trey with 8:32 remaining to pull the Missionaries within 10.
Ignas Pavilonis hit two 3’s and Matt Mournier contributed another in the rally.
But a Connor Nord dunk with 6:33 remaining, his second of the night, re-energized the Tommies, who went on to pick up a comfortable win.
Despite the loss, Bridgeland said opening with the Tommies was a net positive.
“I think it’s a great way (to open the season), actually,” Bridgeland said. “We needed to see where we’re at, and we’re a ways away.
“We’ll watch the film and get better and we’ll go back at it again tomorrow,” Bridgeland said. “We don’t have time to cry about it.”
Life doesn’t get any easier for the Missionaries, as they face a 1 p.m. road game against Division I U.C. Riverside Saturday.
ST. THOMAS (104) — Alipate 2-3 2-3 6, Tengwall 3-5 0-1 9, Tillman 1-1 1-1 3, Stewart 1-5 0-1 2, DeBerg 6-10 3-5 21, Kaiser 3-3 1-1 7, Nance 2-4 0-1 6, Montero 2-2 0-0 5, Riedeman 4-6 0-0 8, Pella 3-4 0-0 7, Nord 6-7 0-0 12, Hannon 7-12 0-0 16, Remke 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 41-63 7-13 104.
WHITMAN (81) — Mounier 5-13 1-7 14, Eisenhardt 11-15 0-2 22, Clough 5-8 1-1 13, Callahan 1-1 1-1 3, Duckworth 3-10 1-2 8, Pavilonis 3-10 2-9 8, Oti 1-6 0-1 2, Lippi 0-1 0-0 0, Clark 0-1 0-1 0, Raher 1-2 1-2 5, Gilkey 3-3 0-0 6. Totals 33-70 7-26 81.
Halftime — St. Thomas 48-32. 3-Point Goals— St. Thomas 7-13 (Alipate 2-3, Tengwall 0-1, Tillman 1-1, Stewart 0-1, DeBerg 3-5, Kaiser 1-1, Nance 0-1), Whitman 7-26 (Mounier 1-7, Eisenhardt 0-2, Clough 1-1, Callahan 1-1, Duckworth 1-2, Pavilonis 2-9, Oti 0-1, Clark 0-1, Raher 1-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—St. Thomas 35 (Nord 6), Whitman 30 (Eisenhardt 8). Assists—St. Thomas 22 (Tengwall, Kaiser, 4), Whitman 12 (Clough 4). Total Fouls—St. Thomas 22, Whitman 18.