Missionary men set sights on Puget Sound

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WALLA WALLA — By Eric Bridgeland’s reckoning, Whitman played 10 games this season without reigning Northwest Conference Player of the Year Ben Eisenhardt, and eight without all-conference guard Josh Duckworth.

That’s 18 games, combined, that injuries robbed Bridgeland’s Missionaries of two of the NWC’s top eight players.

The other eight NWC men’s basketball teams combined? Two games.

And yet somehow, Whitman (16-9) found a way to make the postseason and secure one of the top two seeds to the NWC tournament. The Missionaries host Puget Sound (14-11) in a NWC semifinal at 8 p.m. Thursday at Sherwood Center.

“To go as long as we did without those guys in the mix and to be here?” said Bridgeland. “If you’d told me before the season that we’d be without the Player of the Year and an all-conference guard, but still finish second in the conference, I’d have taken that in a heartbeat.

“I’m exhilirated and excited for our guys,” he added. “They did a fantastic job of battling to be in this position.”

The NWC championship game will be contested on Saturday at the home venue of the highest surviving seed. As the NWC 2-seed, Whitman would host the title game if Lewis and Clark (4) defeats Whitworth (1) Thursday in the other semifinal.

But that, Bridgeland noted, is out of Whitman’s control and off its radar. The crosshairs are centered on a Puget Sound squad which mirrors many of the Missionaries’ core character traits.

“They are extremely well-coached, they board, they guard, they play together,” said Bridgeland. “They have all the ingredients of what we respect and value. They play as hard as anyone in our conference. I’m very excited about playing them.

“I hope,” he said, “that we can raise our game.”

Taken out of context, Whitman’s performance over the final two weeks of the regular season would seem like a blazing red flag. The Missionaries lost three of their final four games, ending the season with an 82-60 setback at Lewis and Clark last Saturday that was their most lopsided loss — by far — of the Northwest Conference gauntlet.

But that stretch coincided with the re-integration of Eisenhardt, a period of tinkering with strategy and rotations that Bridgeland called “almost like an in-conference preseason.”

“Ben couldn’t do anything the first few months,” he said. “We were fortunate to get the second seed locked up pretty early, and we were toying with things. How do we bring back Ben?

“We found out a bunch about ourselves.”

“We put that behind us,” added senior guard LuQuam Thompson. “We’re pretty excited to have the opportunity to play in the playoffs and do something that has never been done.”

Whitman grinded out victories in both conference meetings against the Loggers this season. It prevailed 94-87 in overtime on Jan. 10 in Walla Walla and scratched out a 79-71 victory Feb. 8 in Tacoma.

“They always try to play us tough,” Thompson said. “Their toughness, their rebounding and their intensity will be a challenge. I think we match up well. We just have to be focused at all times and play harder than the other team.”

The Loggers’ 2-4 record against the rest of the playoff field belies exceptional tenacity on the glass (they were second in the conference in rebounding), a penchant for explosive scoring (they beat George Fox, 115-112, last Friday in the highest-scoring game by any NWC team this year) and a multi-faceted attack on offense.

It’s a tantalizing matchup.

“There’s no other way to look at it than to be excited,” said Bridgeland. “We’re into the third season, the championship season. We’re a part of it. How can you not get fired up for that?”

“A lot of teams aren’t around right now,” Thompson added. “We’re going to try to make the most of this opportunity.”

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