With season on the line, men’s basketball looks forward to crucial conference semifinal


Photo by Natalie Mutter

Alden Glass

The Whitman Men’s Basketball team finished out conference play this weekend with two convincing wins over University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University to finish second in conference with a record of 14-2. Conference rivals Whitworth clinched the first seed after two much tighter contests with the Seattle area schools. The Missionaries’ dominant performances over the weekend guaranteed themselves one more home game, as the conference semifinal against Pacific Lutheran University will be in Sherwood tonight.

While Whitman has made the playoffs a number of times in the last few years, things haven’t always gone according to plan. Senior Tochi Oti reminisced about his past experiences in the conference tournament and how this year felt different.

“We haven’t done as well as we would like in the tournament. We now only have a one game schedule. Whoever the next opponent is, is where our focus is,” Oti said. “In years past, we’ve maybe been anxious to get to the conference championship, whereas this year we haven’t talked about it at all.”

This game will be the third meeting between the Lutes and Missionaries this season with the teams splitting the previous two results. After losing to Whitworth by a close two points, Pacific Lutheran is not a team that will be easy to brush aside, and Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Matt Airy discussed what the deciding factors will be in the game.

“At this time of year, especially when you’re playing somebody for the third time, you know each other pretty well. So there are always little tweaks and changes coaches have to make, but those tend to be on the smaller scale rather than the bigger scale,” Airy said. “It’s going to come down to how well we can execute and use our own strengths as we try to limit theirs. A lot of it is who’s going to compete harder, who’s going to play more together, who’s going to be more resilient and those are the factors that really make a big difference.”

When approaching a season defining game like this one, most teams look to their star players for inspiration. For the Missionaries, it isn’t quite that simple. Coach Airy explains who the coaching staff looks towards for inspiration in this crucial postseason.

Photo by Natalie Mutter
Photo by Natalie Mutter

“One of the beauties of our team this year is that it could be any of the fourteen guys who are active. Every single player on our team has played a significant role at one time or another throughout the season. It’s hard to pinpoint. We’re not a team led by one or two dominant players, everyone kind of contributes to everyone else’s success,” Airy said. “What we would hope is that we’ll be in a mode where every single person who steps on the floor is in a mode to do their best to contribute. Our best performances of the year have been in games like that. Everything we’re going to do is to try and make sure we have that collective effort out there.”

Whitman has been dominant at home this season, exemplified in their impressive rout of Whitworth back in early February. In fact, they have only lost a single game in Sherwood all season: a 79-74 loss to Pacific Lutheran in late January. While the ten-point win on Friday night in Tacoma certainly helped banish some of those memories, Whitman certainly cannot, and has not, taken this game for granted. First-year Montez White talked about what Whitman did better this weekend and what they need to do to ensure a spot in the conference championships.

“We are going to approach this game like it is any other, but we obviously know the magnitude of this game and are excited to be a part of it with our home crowd. To beat PLU we are going to have to limit offensive rebounds, keen in on shooters, and try to limit them in transition. We are going to have to just play our game by getting up and down the floor and outworking them on defense and the glass,” White said. “The main difference between the two games was our effort. The second game we came out focused and determined to play hard. We obviously made a few adjustments for the second game but it came down to playing together and playing hard.”

With at-large bids to the NCAA tournament characteristically difficult to predict, Whitman’s best shot at making team history is for the team to bring the effort Thursday night. Oti is relishing the opportunity for one last home game in his career.

“It’s one of the best feelings. Senior night was just the other night, and knowing that we can have another home game is thrilling. I can’t wait for that–I can’t wait to see a big crowd out there. It’s going to be fun,” Oti said.

If it ends up being a fun evening for the Missionaries, the conference finals and the NCAA tournament are looming as rewards for all the hard work put in by this team over this historic year.

Photo by Natalie Mutter
Photo by Natalie Mutter