Western Washington to play for Division II national title
Vikings will play title game on national television
Special to The Seattle Times
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Western Washington basketball coach Brad Jackson is excited to be taking the Vikings to the NCAA Division II championship game for the first time in the history of the program.
"That's a thrill for us to be able to represent our area," Jackson said after Western's 71-66 victory over Springhill, out of Massachusetts, in the semifinals Thursday. "But mostly I'm excited for our players. This type of situation is not something everybody gets to experience."
Western (30-5) will face Montevallo, out of Alabama, in the championship final at 10 a.m. PDT on Saturday. The game will be nationally televised on CBS.
Montevallo (29-7) upset defending national champion Bellarmine 79-72 in the other semifinal Thursday.
"I've played on a lot of teams from high school to community college and now Western, and I've never made it to a championship," said WWU senior forward Zach Henifin. "So it's amazing. That's all I can say."
The Vikings, ranked No. 12 in the final coaches poll, earned a shot at the national title with an impressive team effort.
Western had four players in double figures and shot 47.3 percent (27 of 57) from the field while holding Stonehill to 40.4 percent (23 of 57). The Vikings also finished with a 39-29 rebounding advantage.
But the Vikings, who led by as many as 19 points in the second half, had to hold off a late rally to pull out the victory. After Stonehill closed to 63-59 with 46 seconds left, Western made 8 of 9 free throws to come out on top.
"(Springhill) made a nice run, and I thought we got a little bit tired," Jackson said. "I was just pleased that we were able to hang on, and I'm certainly pleased that we're in the final."
Western's leading scorer was senior forward Rory Blanche with 16 points. He made his first three field-goal attempts to spark a 24-8 run that put Western ahead 28-16 with less than six minutes left in the first half.
During that spurt, the Vikings hit three three-point baskets and had two traditional three-point plays.
Blanche picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 11:57 left in the first half, but his teammates picked up the slack and the Vikings led 33-22 at half.
Henifin played a key role in Western's early success. He had six points, six rebounds, two steals and two assists in the first half.
Henifin finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Western's other double-figure scorers were junior guards John Allen (13 points) and Richard Woodworth (12 points).
"I was really pleased for Zach," Jackson said. "It was just a good overall game, 10 points and 12 rebounds, and I thought defensively he was really the cement for us tonight."
Allen made all four of his free-throw attempts in the final 46 seconds to help the Vikings nail down the victory.
"John Allen is a great free-throw shooter," Blanche said. "It's huge to have a player like that who can step up and knock them down like that when it really matters."