SPORTS: Peninsula College men’s basketball team to start NWACC tournament

KENNEWICK — The Peninsula College men’s basketball team has a spot in the big dance.

That’s all that matters to Pirates head coach Peter Stewart, whose team must face West Division champion Tacoma in the first road of the NWAACC tournament Saturday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick.

“You’ve got to beat them eventually,” Stewart said of the tourney’s top four seeds. “There’s 16 teams in it, and I think any one of those 16 teams can win it.”

It’s a good spot to be in considering where the Pirates were last spring: sitting at home during tournament time for the first time in six years.

Peninsula clinched its spot in the tournament in its final regular season game this year, beating North Division champion Shoreline 94-87.

The Pirates played perhaps their best half of basketball in that win, outscoring the Dolphins 60-45 in the final 20 minutes.

Needless to say, Stewart likes where his team (10-6 in North, 13-12 overall) is at headed into the postseason.

“I think we’re in a very good spot mentally,” he said. “The kids know . . . they are pretty good, and they need to know that. They need to have that confidence.

“Out of our six conference losses, we thought we beat ourselves quite a few times.”

Peninsula’s trademark this season has been to dominate the boards with its posts — Jason Gamblin, Christian Manzanza and Jordan Collins — and let Sequim alum Ryan Rutherford create on the other end.

That worked well during stretches of the team’s division schedule, which began with a four-game win streak and ended with a 5-2 mark in its last seven games.

Gamblin (15.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game) and Rutherford were both named first-team all-division players after helping Peninsula return to the NWAACC tournament for the sixth time in eight years.

“I’m happy for the kids, because it’s a great experience,” Stewart said. “When you turn on the TV right now everybody is talking about March Madness.

“This is our March Madness. We played our way in. Now we go to our tournament.”

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