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Originally published January 3, 2013 at 9:58 PM | Page modified January 3, 2013 at 10:35 PM

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Great basketball played the right way as Western battles SPU

If you're a basketball fan, if you believe the game can be played at a high level in places that ESPN doesn't visit, in conferences that don't care about RPIs, you should have been inside Royal Brougham Pavilion Thursday night.

Times staff columnist

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Coming out of a timeout late in the first half, Western Washington's jab-stepping, direction-changing, irresistible force of a guard John Allen saw a mismatch under the basket, made eye contact with 6-foot-9 center Austin Bragg, who cut hard toward the rim, caught Allen's perfect lob pass and hammered an exclamation point of a dunk.

"I figured I'd throw it up," Allen said, "and create a highlight."

If Clark Kellogg had been calling this game, he would have sprained his larynx describing the play. SportsCenter would have shown Bragg's dunk, I don't know, about a half dozen times.

It was a big time play from a team that plays far from the bright lights of Division I hoops. But it was just one of a blur of dazzling plays in Western's 66-56 win over a very good Seattle Pacific.

If you're a basketball fan, if you believe the game can be played at a high level in places that ESPN doesn't visit, in conferences that don't care about RPIs, you should have been inside Royal Brougham Pavilion Thursday night.

"I've always said that the only difference between Division I and Division II is the four spot," said Allen, a senior transfer from Washington State. "They're a little bit bigger at that level. But everything else — coaching, guard play, usually the centers — it's about all the same.

"There's excitement here. Everything you get at that (D-I) level you get here. You've got guys getting dunked on and guys getting crossed over. You get all the emotion at this level. People kind of sleep D2's, but SPU beat Arizona last year. We should have beat U-Dub this year."

Western, under first-year coach Tony Dominguez, just might be the second-best college basketball team in the state. The Vikings, defending NCAA Division II champions, have won 17 in a row over two seasons and are playing better right now than they did last season.

They understand what it takes to win championships and they play with the kind of Duke-like toughness and confidence that title contenders must have.

"Oh I definitely agree," Allen said. "We're better than last year."

Junior guard Richard Woodworth, however, looked around the gym before he answered the question about which Western team, this season's or last season's, was better. He knew there were graduated members of the 2012 championship team among that 2,058 in the building.

"Some people have said that," he said. "But I don't know if I want some of my buddies for last year to hear me say that. But yeah, I think we might be a little bit better."

The Vikings don't concede an inch of the floor. It seemed as if every shot an SPU player took, there was a Western hand in his face.

Western came into the game ranked fifth in the country and SPU was seventh. It's just that on this night Western played it better.

"We have a real confident group of guys," Woodworth said. "I think it's that confidence level that sets us apart. The coaching staff has done a great job of recruiting the type of players that fit their system, instead of just going out and getting the best talent available. They've passed on some guys who are really talented.

"But I think the big thing is we just get along so well. Everybody here could be a starter at some program somewhere around the country, but a lot of guys have sacrificed for the team and that's brought us really close."

All this brand of basketball is missing sometimes is a proper stage. Western and SPU is a rivalry so good their games deserve to be played at some place like Alaska Airlines Arena in front of 10,000 fans.

"SPU's tough. We're tough," senior forward Paul Jones said. "But we don't care about the recognition. We just want to take care of business. We're just about the game."

Still, these games and these teams should be appreciated by more people. This was high-quality, entertaining basketball.

"We just know what it takes to win," Jones said. "A lot of these guys have been around three-plus years. We have such good chemistry on this unit, this year. We know what it takes to win and I think that sometimes we are better than last year. It's hard saying that, though, knowing we won a national championship."

In the final seconds, as Cameron Severson dribbled out the clock, the large and loud Western cheering section rose and roared. Those Vikings fans might have been watching another national championship team.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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