WALLA WALLA — It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season.
Whitman College, top-ranked and previously undefeated, found that out in hard-luck fashion on Saturday night after dropping the championship game of the Northwest Conference tournament to Whitworth, 68-65, on George Ball Court at Sherwood Center.
The Pirates, who lost a pair of regular-season contests to the Missionaries, connected on 15-of-16 free throw opportunities in the final 7:12 of play to keep Whitman at arm’s length and improve to 20-7 on the season.
The Missionaries are now 26-1.
“They made some tough shots,” Whitman coach Michelle Ferenz said. “I thought we played pretty well defensively. We did not play as well offensively. Our effort was great. Our kids battled.
“It’s been a great season,” Ferenz said. “We would have liked to have won the conference tournament, but now it’s big tournament time.”
The Missionaries’ NCAA tournament fate will be announced Monday morning. Information will be available at D3hoops.com and ncaa.org.
Whitman literally and figuratively raced to a 10-5 lead at the 15:35 mark of half one. Tiffani Traver banked in an in-stride, transition layup to end the early surge. She had contributed another lay-in just two minutes earlier that gave the Missionaries a 6-3 lead.
Meghan White successfully followed an inside miss with 14:01 on the clock to increase Whitman’s margin to seven points, 12-5.
It took the Pirates just under five minutes to wipe out all but one point of the deficit. Katara Belton-Sharp drove down the left side of the lane for a layup at the 9:09 mark to make it a 14-13 game.
Whitworth caught the Missionaries at 18-18 with 6:22 left in the half on an uncontested, 3-point field goal just to the left of the top of the key by Lexie Zappone.
Traver drained a right-wing trey at the 5:14 mark to give the edge back to Whitman, 21-18.
After exchanging baskets, Whitworth’s Kayla Johnson — the league’s second-leading scorer, averaging 18.2 points per game — connected from long distance to knot the score at 23-23.
But the Missionaries would get the last laugh before intermission. Traver rattled home a right-angle three 25 seconds before halftime that provided Whitman with a 26-23 advantage at the break.
“Our kids defended very well,” Ferenz said. “Offensively, we never found a rhythm.”
Johnson and Traver, No. 4 and 5 in the league in 3-point efficiency — 40.2% and 40%, respectively — led their teams in the scoring column over the first 20 minutes. Traver scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field, including a pair of 3s, while Johnson tallied nine points.
Belton-Sharp drew the visitors within one, 31-30, on a 3-ball from the left corner at the 16:05 mark of the second half.
After tying things up at 33, 35 and 37, the Pirates took their first lead of the game, 42-40, when Kendra Knutsen knocked down a 3 from the left wing with 11:57 remaining.
The Whitworth lead grew to six, 46-40, on a Jessica Kramer bank shot in deep on the right at the 10:07 mark.
Whitman got within one, 46-45, by the 8:02 mark on the strength of five consecutive free throws.
But the Pirates responded by twice increasing their lead to five — 50-45 and 54-49.
Whitworth took its biggest lead, seven points, on a trey by Johnson from the right corner with 1:42 to go that made it 61-54.
The Missionaries closed the gap to two on three occasions in the final 28.9 seconds — the final time on a Traver drive with 3.2 seconds to go.
Knutsen made one of two free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining for the game’s final point.
The Missionaries had one final chance to tie, but a Sarah Anderegg heave from backcourt came up short as time expired.
“We made some stops down the stretch to give ourselves a chance,” Ferenz said.
K.C. McConnell led the Pirates with 18 points while Johnson added a double-double — 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Anderegg paced all scorers in the game with 23 points. Traver and Heather Johns added 15 points apiece.
Johns, the Northwest Conference’s Player of the Year, grabbed a team-high 10 boards.
WHITWORTH 68, WHITMAN 65
WHITWORTH (68) — McConnell 4-10 10-10 18, Johnson 6-16 2-2 16, Lahue 1-8 6-7 9, Zappone 1-7 2-2 5, Lyons 0-1 0-0 0, Belton-Sharp 3-6 2-2 10, Knutsen 2-3 1-2 6, Kramer 2-2 0-2 4, McLeod 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-53 23-37 68.
WHITMAN (65) — Anderegg 5-11 13-15 23, Johns 6-14 3-3 15, Traver 6-10 0-0 15, White 2-4 0-0 5, Mcdonald 0-3 0-1 0, Maeda 1-4 3-5 5, Ketner 1-3 0-1 2, Brewer 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-51 20-27 65.
Halftime — Whitworth 23-26. 3-point goals — Whitworth 7 (Belton-Sharp 2, Johnson 2, Lahue, Zappone, Knutsen), Whitman 3 (Traver 3). Total fouls — Whitworth 22, Whitman 20. Fouled out — Whitworth (Lyons), Whitman (Mcdonald). Total rebounds — Whitworth 36 (Johnson 11), Whitman 36 (Johns 10). Turnovers — Whitworth 12, Whitman 11. Assists — Whitworth 10 (Lyons 3), Whitman 9 (Anderegg 2, Traver 2, Mcdonald 2).