Whitman women keep playoff hopes alive

Bailey Arango

The Whitman College women’s basketball team went 1-1 on its weekend road trip to improve their conference record to 5-7 and put themselves in position to contend for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Northwest conference as the season nears its close. Despite coming up just short of what would have been a miraculous upset against George Fox on the night of Friday, Feb. 5 in Newberg, Ore., the Missionaries bounced back to rout Pacific in Forest Grove, Ore. the next day. Whitman is just two games back of fourth-place Whitworth coming into a crucial three-game homestand.

Despite losing by 11 to defending Division-III National Champion George Fox in Walla Walla on Jan. 8, the Missionaries built an early lead against the Bruins Friday. George Fox rallied in the game’s final minutes to win 50-46, improving their conference record to a perfect 11-0.

Whitman, a team riddled with injuries fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive, played with a tenacity and grit uncharacteristic of their win-loss record. Senior Hilary White, one week removed from her first double-double of the season, led Whitman with 12 points, eight rebounds and three crucial steals. Junior Rebecca Sexton chipped in nine points and six rebounds, but in the end the game came down to free throws. The Bruins made the best of their 20 free-throw opportunities while only letting Whitman get to the line for five attempts.

In desperate need of a conference win, Whitman bounced back to build a huge halftime lead and coast to defeat Pacific, 71-55. One day removed from a solid six-point showing, first-year Kelly Peterson tore into Pacific for 21 points, 19 of which she scored before halftime. White put up a second-consecutive 12 point night, while Sexton, senior Michelle Krall and first-year Mary Madden each scored nine. Whitman’s victory over Pacific, along with their near-upset of George Fox, put in perspective the radical resurgence the Missionaries have experienced after losing six of their first seven NWC games; no one in attendance Saturday would recognize Whitman as the same team that lost a 71-70 heart breaker to Pacific at home just over a month ago, a sentiment Peterson echoes.

“The team has been playing so much better as a whole lately,” Peterson said. “People are finally playing more comfortably with one another. Everyone has been stepping their game up and playing really well. We have some challenging games ahead, but if we stay together and play as a team then we can do very well in the coming few weeks.”

The Missionaries find themselves two games back of Whitworth for the final NWC playoff spot with just four games to go. Of Whitman’s seven conference losses, four have been by four points or less, and teams like Whitworth, who beat Whitman by three points in Spokane in January, have fared substantially worse than Whitman against the conference’s best teams. Just a day after being pushed to the brink by Whitman, George Fox shellacked Whitworth 70-43.

Head Coach Michelle Ferenz stresses the fact that Whitman’s rocky start to conference play can be rendered irrelevant by a strong showing in the week ahead.

“We lost a lot of really close games early on, but it’s all still up in the air. These next three games are huge for us,” she said.

Whitman enters a crucial three-game homestand this weekend, culminating Feb. 16 with a rematch against Whitworth. The Missionaries will face Pacific Lutheran at home on Friday Feb. 12, followed by a Saturday night game against the University of Puget Sound.