By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director
SALEM, Ore. -- The Willamette University men's basketball team was ready for its match-up with #1-ranked Whitworth University on Friday, Jan. 15 at Cone Field House. The Bearcats started the game strong, led for most of the contest, and brought the Pirates, who have won six consecutive NWC championships, into overtime before Whitworth prevailed 81-77.
Willamette matched Whitworth in overall shooting percentage during the game, as both teams made 27 of 64 shots. The Bearcats hit 7 of 19 three-pointers, while limiting the Pirates to 3 of 14 from behind the arc. Willamette shot a higher free throw percentage at 76.2% (16 of 21), but Whitworth had more attempts, finishing at 66.7% on 24 of 36 attempts.
"Coaches often look a lot smarter than they are when their players just make plays," Willamette Head Coach Kip Ioane said. "Our guys took a solid game plan our staff put together and made it look extraordinary with their performance on the floor."
The first half was particularly impressive for the Bearcats. The held Whitworth to 29.0% on field goals (9 of 31). Each team had just four turnovers in the first 20 minutes. Willamette owned a 37-30 lead at halftime.
Succuss in the opening half showed just how prepared the Bearcats were to take on the Pirates. Willamette surged out to a 6-2 lead. Later, following three ties and six leads changes, Willamette gained a 24-23 advantage and remained in front for the final 5:14 of the half.
Nico Troplent (So., W, Los Angeles, CA/Cathedral HS) scored 13 points in the first half, while Casey Thornton (So., F, Santa Rosa, CA/Maria Carrillo HS) provided 10 points. Brandon "Bubba" Luedtke (Sr., F, Meridian, ID/Mountain View HS) nearly had a double-double at the break with eight points and 10 rebounds.
Willamette's great efforts continued in the second half, and the Bearcats were in front 69-65 following a jumper by Thornton with 1:59 to go. Whitworth tallied the last four points of regulation to force overtime and then outscored the Bearcats 12-8 in the extra session.
Top contributions for Willamette during the game included:
Troplent scored a team-high 18 points and connected on four 3-point baskets.
"I thought Nico set the tone all game with his willingness to attack their defense and be the all around force we know he can be," Ioane said.
Thornton produced a career-high 16 points.
"Casey Thornton's performance was one we hope is a launching pad for his career here," Ioane commented. "You never know when the light is going to go on for a player and we were happy to see him show everyone in our league what he is capable of doing."
Luedtke recorded a double-double with 13 points and 15 rebounds, while also earning four assists an blocking three shots.
"For Bubba to have a double-double against a defense as good as Whitworth's is a testament to his ability and drive," Ioane noted. "They don't make it easy on your #1 option, and Bubba found a way anyway."
Brendon McCullough (So., G, San Antonio, TX/Home Schooled) added 12 points.
Alex Brown (Sr., F, Happy Valley, OR/Clackamas HS) scored 11 points.
A total of 13 Bearcats saw action during the game.
It was an exciting and competitive NWC match-up for fans to watch.The Bearcats and the Pirates showed the quality of play that the NWC produces. It was truly an epic game that both teams are likely to remember for a long time.