Athletics News

Carver Memories -- March 24, 2012

March 6, 2018


Carver Memories -- March 24, 2012

WWU wins NCAA II Men's Basketball Championship

Most watched and listened to event in Viking history

What was the most watched and listened to event in the history of Western Washington University athletics?

That's an easy one.

When the Vikings won the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship at The Bank of Kentucky Arena in Highland Heights, Kentucky, on Saturday, March 24, 2012.

The game was telecast live on CBS TV. It also was carried nationally on Westwood One radio.

Brightly-colored confetti flew, a banner was raised and nets cut, following Western's hard-fought 72-65 victory over Montevallo AL. The Vikings were presented the trophy, the goal of over 300 schools when the season began, raising it high above their heads at midcourt as "We are the Champions," blared throughout the building.

The national championship was Western's first in 110 years of competing in men's basketball and just the second by a school from the state of Washington at any collegiate level of the sport. The other came in 1976 when Puget Sound won the NCAA II title.

Making the achievement even more amazing was its unexpectedness. It seemed to come out of nowhere with Western posting a school record 31 wins and winning both the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) regular season title and the NCAA II West Regional crown on its way to the championship.

The Vikings had finished 16-11 the previous season, which ended with four straight losses to dash any hopes of a regional berth. They placed fourth in the GNAC standings and lost in the opening-round of the league's post-season tournament. And completing his eligibility was the leading scorer from that team.

The key additions on the national championship squad were players from 2010-11, who were either injured or ineligible. So, Western was picked third in the GNAC pre-season coaches' poll behind Alaska Anchorage and Seattle Pacific.

Even after winning the regional championship and qualifying for their first Elite Eight appearance since 2001 and just their second overall, things looked bleak for Western when it trailed 16-2 midway through the first half of its national quarterfinal game against fifth-ranked Midwestern State TX.

The Vikings almost did not have head coach Brad Jackson on the bench for that contest. He had missed the previous day's media conference (Associate Head Coach Tony Dominguez filled in) with a virus and had not left his hotel room since the team had arrived in Kentucky two days before.

But with Jackson recuperated, the Vikings rallied to escape with a one-point victory, 64-63, and continue their improbable ride to a national title that was beginning to look like their destiny. A tough team winning tight games as all six of its post-season contests were decided by single digits.

The day after its national championship win, Western flew back to Bellingham, Wash., aboard a chartered plane and received a police escort to campus where delirious fans awaited them.

In the days that followed, there was a special ceremony at the school's Sam Carver Gymnasium and a trip to meet state governor Christine Gregoire as well as decrees from U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville. The state of Washington's entire House of Representatives delegation in Washington D.C. introduced a resolution led by Rick Larsen in honor of the achievement. And the team was honored by the Seattle Mariners with a first pitch ceremony prior to a game on Apr. 14, 2012, at Safeco Field.

Jackson, whose father Earl had passed away on Sept. 25, 2011, was named the 2012 DII national Coach of the Year by both the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Division II Bulletin. During the season, he became just the fifth collegiate coach in state history to win 500 games, all of them during his 27 seasons at WWU. Jackson's total stood at 518 after the title game victory.

What made the 2011-12 Vikings so special? There were a number of factors. Their balance on offense with seven or eight players who could produce in their up-tempo attack on any given night. Depth at all positions that allowed WWU to continue its suffocating defensive pressure late in games. Aggressive rebounding, confidence, focus, unselfish play and toughness. The players trusted and respected one another and remained composed no matter the situation.

Despite facing stiffer competition than the previous season and playing eight nationally ranked opponents, WWU's defensive average of 71.2 was nearly 10 points per game better. The Vikings held opponents under 41 percent field goal accuracy in each of their last five post-season games.

Offensively, no less than seven players averaged seven or more points per game. Western was 13-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points and 7-1 against teams ranked among the Top 25.

WWU's 2012 title capped off an amazing four-year run of West Region teams reaching the NCAA II national championship game. Cal Poly Pomona took the crown in 2009 and 2010 and BYU Hawaii was runner-up in 2011.

"I believe what people began to recognize was that from top to bottom the West Region was the most difficult in the country. Our title was the third for the West Region in four years. And I believe that in eight of the last 10 seasons there had been a West Region team in the final four." -- Brad Jackson

"We had all the pieces to be the best D2 team in the nation. We just needed to realize it was possible and once we did, that was our sole focus." -- Rory Blanche

"It was tough for teams to score on us down the stretch. We had a couple guys who were nightmares on the defensive end. We also ran the pick-n-roll exceptionally well down the stretch and made free throws. We could get stops and executed late on offense." -- John Allen

How The Team Came To Be

Three starters and five of the top 12 players on Western's 2011-12 squad were recruited out of high school and played their entire careers for the Vikings, each earning four letters. The first-stringers were 6-foot-6 senior forward Rory Blanche (Ashland, Ore.), who redshirted his first year; 6-8 junior center Chris Mitchell (Everson/Nooksack Valley), who received a medical redshirt in 2008-09 after suffering a season-ending foot injury; and 6-3 sophomore guard Richard Woodworth (Bellevue/Newport), who missed the 2010-11 campaign because of a stress fracture in his foot and an injured wrist. Rounding out the quintet were 6-5 junior guard Cameron Severson (Petersburg, Alaska) and 6-3 sophomore guard Dane Thorpe (Bellingham/Sehome).

Seven transfers, five of whom saw significant minutes on the title-winning team, completed the roster.

Two of those were returning starters. Junior John Allen (Brier/Mountlake Terrace), a 6-1 guard, was a walk-on at Washington State and played in 13 games for the Cougars in 2009-10 before transferring to WWU. Senior Zack Henifin (Bellingham), a 6-5 forward, originally attended Cal Baptist and competed two years at Whatcom CC before taking a redshirt season and playing at Western.

Two others, who turned out to be Western's top reserves that season, had not seen action the previous year. They were 6-0 junior guard Rico Wilkins (Dallas, Texas/DeSoto), who received a medical redshirt in 2010-11 after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in just the fifth game; and 6-4 junior forward Paul Jones (Kent/Kent-Meridian), who had originally come to WWU, then played two seasons at Whatcom CC before sitting out a year to become eligible to compete for the Vikings. Wilkins had previously played at Grayson (Tex.) County CC and Yakima Valley CC.

"To me (not starting) was a little hard getting used to, because I'd never really come off the bench. But, I realized it was the best thing for the team, and it was cool with me as long as we were winning. Off the bench, I tried to play good defense. If my shots weren't falling, I just tried to make big plays and get stops on defense. I felt like I'm an energy guy - me and Rico (Wilkins). The previous year, we didn't have a great defense. Me, Rico and Rich (Woodworth) did not play that season, and we made a big difference during the championship year. I just tried to bring energy the rest of the team could feed off of." -- Paul Jones

Rounding out the transfers were senior Dan Young (Federal Way), a 6-10 center, who saw action two years at Highline CC; junior Damien Fisher (Fife), a 6-7 forward, who played two seasons at Centralia CC; and junior Alfred Davis (Tacoma/Lincoln), a 6-0 guard, who competed two years at Pierce CC.

Shedrick Nelson, a 6-3 senior guard, played in just four games in 2011-12 before suffering season-ending torn ACL and MCL ligaments. He had averaged 8.7 points the previous year after playing two seasons at Highline CC.

The Regular Season

Western got off to the earliest start of any DII school, competing in the Disney West Coast Tip-off Classic on Nov. 4-6 at Anaheim, Calif. The Vikings opened with two wins before falling to Chestnut Hill PA. That was the only setback in their first 12 games.

After five home wins, one 88-69 over No.3 BYU Hawaii, Western began conference play in early December by sweeping road games at Seattle Pacific (79-71) and Montana State Billings (81-70).

"Both were hard-fought games that came down to the last six-to-eight minutes. Our players dug down for something extra in both games. That was the first indication to me that we were pretty mentally tough and could perform in pressure situations." -- Brad Jackson

WWU's second loss came on Dec. 16, 77-74 to No.18 Alabama-Huntsville at its Great Western Shootout in Las Vegas. That followed an 80-61 win over No.10 Rollins FL.

In mid-January, Western took the ominous two-game swing to play Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks, and came away with a rare sweep as it took over first place in the GNAC.

The Vikings had a school-best 17-1 home record during the 50th anniversary year of Carver Gym. They won the GNAC regular-season crown with a 16-2 mark, posting home wins over No.8 Alaska Anchorage, 59-50, and No.24 Seattle Pacific, 72-70. And WWU was 8-1 in league road games, tying the GNAC record.

GNAC Tournament

After receiving a first-round bye, WWU had its season nearly derailed, being upset, 82-78, by Montana State Billings in the GNAC Tournament semifinals at Lacey. The Vikings had beaten MSUB by double figures twice during the regular season, but the Yellowjackets got hot at the right time, won the conference tourney and earned a berth at regionals.

However, because of its overall body of work during the campaign, Western still received the No.1 seed and played host to the West Regional. The Vikings would not lose again.

"Losing to Billings in the conference tourney was the low point of the season for us, but it came right at the perfect time." -- John Allen

"We had just lost to Montana State Billings in the GNAC Tournament, we were lucky to still be able to host the regional tournament, and we wanted to prove that we deserved the honor of hosting." -- Rory Blanche

NCAA II West Regional

WWU entered the national bracket at 25-5, having split its last four games, following a 10-game winning streak.

The Vikings began with a 79-73 first-round regional victory over Grand Canyon. They built a 25-point first-half lead as Allen scored 15 of his game-high 24 points, then had to hold off a furious comeback by the Antelopes.

Western led 42-17 with four minutes left in the first half and was up by 21 at halftime, 48-27. The Vikings were ahead by eight with 1:47 to go, but two Antelope baskets cut the deficit to four with 44 seconds remaining. WWU finally put the game away at the foul line as Severson made two with 28 seconds left and Blanche converted two more with 16 seconds remaining.

"Our coaching staff dedicated a portion of our practices to what they would call `time and score scenarios.' In these scenarios, they would set the time and score to high-pressure situations, meaning we would practice finishing games either having to hold off a victory by a couple of points or come from behind with just a few minutes to spare. Having practiced these scenarios many times, we were prepared and ready to execute when they came to life in games." - Rory Blanche

In a regional semifinal against Chico State, Blanche and Henifin combined for 25 of Western's 34 points in the second half of a 74-65 win.

Then Allen scored a game-high 16 points and was named the regional tournament Most Outstanding Player as the Vikings defeated Seattle Pacific, 56-50, in the West Regional championship contest. Blanche and Henifin also were all-tourney choices.

WWU held a 30-23 halftime lead, but SPU opened the second period with a 9-2 run to tie the game at 32-32 just 2:07 into the period. However, fastbreak layins by Blanche and Allen triggered a 14-4 run, and the Vikings opened up a 46-36 advantage with 10:23 left, the biggest margin of the game.

Although the Falcons rallied again, pulling to within three, 46-43, with 7:23 left, they never got closer.

"We had come so close to the Elite Eight in 2010, losing on a last-second shot (to Cal Poly Pomona). Being able to beat a talented SPU team and hoist the regional trophy was incredible." - Rory Blanche

"Coach (Jackson) had a saying that really stuck with me when we made it to the Sweet 16. `Somebody has got to win this tournament, and it might as well be us! Why not us?' I'm sure my teammates felt and believed in those words just as deeply as I did." -- Rico Wilkins

"Our team dynamic seemed to shift a little bit once we got into the post-season. There was an overall sense of everyone just wanting to win. It was not about how many points anyone scored or any individual stat once we started our run in the tournament. It was all about getting a win and adding one more game to our season." -- Chris Mitchell

"After we won the regional championship, I was so pleased with this team that anything else we did was just going to be icing on the cake. That became a whole lot of icing." -- Rory Blanche

"When we arrived at the Elite 8 banquet, the national championship trophy was displayed on a table near the entrance. Seeing it in person immediately made real the possibility. If it was close enough to touch, why couldn't we win it?" -- Damien Fisher

Elite Eight -- Quarterfinal

Things did not look good for the Vikings early in their national quarterfinal game in Kentucky. They got off to a terrible start, turning the ball over on four of their first six possessions and did not score for six minutes to trail 16-2 after 10 minutes.

But the WWU defense stiffened, holding No.5-rated Midwestern State scoreless for more than four minutes, and the Vikings pulled to within four, 16-12, with 5:54 remaining in the half.

Western closed the half tied at 27-27.

"We'd been a composed team all year long and I didn't sense any panic. When we closed the gap at halftime, that was big for us." -- Brad Jackson

"It's funny because we still joke about that game. I remember being in the huddle during the first or second timeout. We were down big. We all looked at each other with no worries, like, `Okay, we ready to stop @#$%!.' Arrogance, ego, confidence. Whatever it was, we had a lot of it. So being down in a game was never a time to panic for us." -- John Allen

"We had a lot of confidence going in (to the Elite Eight) and those troubles (against Midwestern State) were a little nerve wracking because it was win-or-go-home. They really put it on us early in the game. They came out and hit us in the mouth and we had to respond and hit them back and I think we did a good job of that." -- Richard Woodworth

Blanche hit a jump shot with less than eight minutes to play to give the Vikings the lead for good at 50-48 and Wilkins followed with a 3-pointer from the right corner that gave Western its largest lead of the game, 53-48.

Midwestern State, which was making its third straight Elite Eight appearance, cut the lead to one twice in the final two minutes, but the Vikings held on for a 64-63 victory despite missing three free throws in the last nine seconds.

MSU had a chance for a winning basket after rebounding the second of two missed free throws. The Mustangs drove the length of the floor, but did not get a shot off before time expired.

The Vikings shot 61 percent from the floor in the second half, making 14 of 23 attempts.

Blanche scored a game-high 15 points for WWU. Jones came off the bench with 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds, Allen had 14 points and Woodworth added 13 points and eight rebounds.

After that win, long-time volunteer assistant coach Rob Visser, a former Hall of Fame player for the Vikings, sensed something special was in the offing.

"You could just feel it. So I called my wife Deb and told her to catch the next flight out (of Bellingham), so that she wouldn't miss us winning the national title." -- Rob Visser

"Our first game in Kentucky was a close one. Midwestern State was a talented team. Once we beat them I felt like we were the best team in the Elite Eight ... That win gave me confidence." -- Chris Mitchell

"When we came back from that terrible start to beat Midwestern State in the first round at nationals. At that moment I believed we could win it all." -- Rory Blanche

"We wouldn't accept losing as an option. The focus we had going into every game always went into high gear as the clock wound down. The trust we had in each other gave us confidence the guys on the floor were going to get it done." -- Dan Young

Elite Eight -- Semifinal

Western fell into an early hole for the second straight game and trailed Stonehill MA 11-4 in the early minutes of its national semifinal. But the Vikings scored 16 unanswered points during a 28-11 rally to close the first half with a 10-point lead, 32-22.

WWU led, 47-27, with a little over 13 minutes to play, but Stonehill went on a 19-5 run to close the margin to six, 52-46, with 5:32 left.

The Vikings' lead shrank to four three times in the last 1:23, the final one at 65-61 with 38 seconds left.

But Western was able to convert from the foul line, knocking down 8-of-10 free throws in the final 46 seconds of the 71-66 win. Allen, who finished with 13 points, was 4-of-4 during that stretch.

Blanche had a game-high 16 points for the Vikings, Woodworth 12 points and nine rebounds and Henifin 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, helping WWU to a 39-29 advantage on the boards.

"Zack had a great game. He was a real catalyst for us. He has been the guts of our team with his quiet leadership." -- Brad Jackson

"This is a dream come true for us. At the end, we were able to execute. John Allen has been great in that situation all season." -- Rory Blanche

National Championship Game

Five players scored in double figures and Blanche added nine as the Vikings defeated Montevallo AL 72-65, to win the NCAA II national crown in a game that featured five ties and 16 lead changes.

WWU led 33-26 early in second half before Montevallo hit seven straight shots from the field to go on a 14-2 run and take a 40-35 lead with 15:20 to play.

But the Vikings responded with a run of their own, putting together a 14-4 charge in less than five minutes to go ahead, 49-44, with 10 minutes left, and extended the margin to 61-49 on a three-pointer by Jones with 6:19 left.

"I thought that was a key time in the game. We had a lead; they came back and went up by five or so. The first part of that is this team was very mentally tough. They very rarely got rattled. I think we were able to mentally weather that storm. And then we came back and hit a couple of big shots. I didn't sense any panic or concern on our part. But when we did retake the lead, and it was maybe only a couple of minutes, I felt like that was a big turning point in the game emotionally. Once we did that, it seemed that our guys gained even more confidence and began to stretch it out a little bit." -- Brad Jackson

Western led the rest of the way, though Montevallo pulled to within four with 58.3 seconds, taking advantage of two Viking miscues.

But WWU was able to stay composed and hit some key free throws down the stretch. Allen made two free throws with 19 seconds left to give the Vikings their final margin of victory.

"Personally that was my fondest memory of the season. Walking to the free throw line and telling Montevallo, `This game's over.'" -- John Allen

Montevallo guard D.J. Rivera, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Elite Eight, led the Falcons with a game-high 20 points, but was 7-of-18 from the field as the Vikings gave him a hard time driving to the basket for most of the game.

Rivera had previous experience in the NCAA's biggest tournament. He was part of the team that took Binghamton NY to its first NCAA Division I tournament in 2009, and scored 20 points in a first-round loss to Duke.

"Throughout the course of the year we had quite a number of games that were fairly close. We were not a team that blew people out. I think we were pretty comfortable in that situation. We were concerned with a couple of those turnovers. But I think we felt that if we could get the ball in the hands of the right people and get to the line, we had a pretty good shot at it. John Allen is usually the guy we look to go to and he did a great job. Once we got into that position when we were getting to the free throw line, our players were pretty comfortable." -- Brad Jackson

"My fondest memory was the second the buzzer went off and we had won the national championship. However, I think the build up to that point was just as much fun ... Beyond just the wins we had, knowing it was with a group of guys that respected each other, who had each other's back, and who trusted each person to make the right decision when it counted the most, is a feeling that has stayed with me the most." -- Dan Young

"Winning the championship is the moment I will never forget. It took weeks to sink in and realize how special and rare it was. Having all of the support from our community when we returned, people calling and saying how proud they were of us was memorable as well ... It was the most fun I have ever had playing a sport in my life." -- Chris Mitchell

"We got back to the locker room after the ceremony and everyone was turning on their phones and all you could hear was ringtones. I had friends from all over the country writing on Facebook and calling to say congratulations ... My best friend from when I was like six-years-old, who I hadn't talked to in seven or eight years, gave me a call and said he couldn't be prouder and was just really glad I was able to get it done ... I had family friends calling who I didn't even know." -- Richard Woodworth

The Players

Rory Blanche

"Rory is the most talented player ... and the hardest matchup in the GNAC," said one rival coach of Western's team captain.

Blanche was a Division II Bulletin All-America honorable mention, first-team NABC and Daktronics West Region choice and a unanimous GNAC all-star, averaging 15.9 points and 6.9 rebounds to lead the team in both categories. He ranked 15th nationally in field-goal shooting at 59.5 percent (244-of-410).

Blanche, who was named to both the Elite Eight and West Regional all-tournament teams, had a team-high 31 double-figure scoring games. He finished ninth among WWU career leaders in rebounds with 544 and 13th in points with 1,273.

Blanche also was a first-team College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-American, becoming just the third athlete in school history for all sports to earn that honor. A manufacturing engineering technology major, he also won a number of other league and regional academic honors, finishing with a 3.72 (4.0 scale) grade point average.

A slashing perimeter player at Ashland (Ore.) High School, Blanche grew five inches to 6-foot-6 and added 25 pounds to 205 from his junior year as a prep to his last two seasons at Western.

That was not surprising considering that Rory's father, Robert, played football as an offensive lineman and tight end at Stanford. Blanche's two uncles also competed in football at Southern Cal, and his mother, Lynn, was a basketball player at Palomar (Calif.) JC.

As a senior at AHS, Blanche was a second-team Class 5A all-state pick and the Southern Sky Conference Player of the Year, helping the Grizzlies to the state quarterfinals at McArthur Court on the University of Oregon campus.

"I definitely had to spend time becoming more of a back-to-the-basket player at Western. My game definitely changed, and for the better." -- Rory Blanche

As a senior at WWU, Blanche accepted an offer to work as a footwear engineer at the Nike world headquarters in Beaverton, OR. Over the last five years, he has held a few different engineering roles and had the opportunity to work on pinnacle Nike products with people all over the world. A highlight was managing a team that engineered several of the LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Durant, and Jordan signature shoes.

To date, his favorite project was helping create a shoe concept for the Nike Doernbecher Freestyle Collection. This foundation allows patients with life-threatening issues at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital to design and create their own versions of iconic Nike footwear silhouettes. One hundred percent of the proceeds go to the hospital and Blanche was honored to help bring a child's vision to life for the 2017 auction.

Currently, Blanche is a Lead Product Engineer for Nike Sportswear shoes. He focuses primarily on Nike's collaborations with external designers as well as executing new product innovations. He plays in city and Nike intramural basketball leagues as often as possible.

John Allen

Allen was named the West Regional Most Outstanding Player and a second-team GNAC all-star. He averaged 14.6 points and ranked 10th nationally in free-throw shooting at 89.5 percent (94-of-105).

As the NCAA DII national champion, Western accepted an invitation to play Duke in a pre-season exhibition game at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium on Oct. 27, 2012. After the contest, Blue Devils' Hall of Fame Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he believed Allen could compete well in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

As a senior in 2012-13, Allen led WWU to a 31-3 record and the national semifinals. He was picked a first-team DII Bulletin and third-team Basketball Times and Daktronics All-American as well as Daktronics West Region and GNAC Player of the Year.

After going undrafted in the 2013 NBA Draft, Allen kept working on his game, attending D-League tryouts, and was selected in the fourth round by the Texas Legends in the D-League Draft and eventually played for the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Allen stayed sharp during the offseason by playing in the ever-growing Seattle Pro-Am (known to most as the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am).

"It's second to none especially in this city. You know, Jamal helps everybody out and puts us on and it's just somethin' to be thankful for to play against competition like this. These are guys who play in the NBA and overseas so it's an exciting time of the year." -- John Allen

Allen performed so well that he was selected for the Pro-Am's All-Star team.

"I think down the road as I mature a little more and my game starts to mature more as well, I think I would definitely give it another shot if I thought I was ready to make a move and try to get into an NBA-type situation." -- John Allen

Zack Henifin

Henifin was named to the West Regional all-tournament team. He averaged 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds and was the Vikings' stopper on defense. Henifin originally attended Cal Baptist and played two years at Whatcom CC before taking a redshirt season in order to become eligible to play at Western.

Henifin, who was named WWU's Coaches Award winner, is currently opening and managing cannabis shops in Washngton and Oregon. He also is consulting with other companies in the cannabis industry in Washington.

"I had the pleasure of rooming with Zack Henifin on all of our road trips that season. This provided constant conversation and entertainment." -- Chris Mitchell

"He (Henifin) always cared, but he definitely stepped up in a huge way down the stretch. He went into a different gear." -- John Allen

"The one thing about Zack's natural make-up is that he is a confident young man. He's not afraid of anybody, and I think that does rub off on the team. He brings a certain level of an intimidating presence, and he doesn't get rattled. He keeps his wits about him and understands the little things that others may space out on like timeouts and match-up situations." -- Brad Jackson

Richard Woodworth

Woodworth had strong ball-handling skills and his ability to control the game made a drastic impact from the previous season to 2011-12. He took over the brunt of the point guard duties, freeing up other players to handle their roles.

Woodworth received Elite Eight all-tourney recognition and all-GNAC honorable mention. He averaged 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists, hitting 45.2 percent (38-of-84) on 3-pointers.

Woodworth finished his four-year career with 1,262 points, shooting 41.5 percent (124-of-299) from 3-point range and 80.2 percent (300-of-374) at the free throw line. He was an honorable mention DII Bulletin All-American and first-team Great Northwest Athletic Conference all-star as a senior in 2013-14, hitting a buzzer beater from beyond half court in a dramatic 94-91 win over arch-rival Central Washington that was telecast on Root Sports Northwest (Video of play received over 32,000 hits on YouTube). He scored Vikings' last 13 points in that game, nine in final 20 seconds as WWU rallied from a six-point deficit with 1:05 to go.

As a junior in 2012-13 on a team that reached the national semifinals, Woodworth was a second-team GNAC all-star and West Regional Most Outstanding Player. He served as a student assistant coach for the Vikings in 2014-15.

Chris Mitchell

Mitchell averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, connecting on 4-of-5 3-pointers in the national title game and being voted the Vikings' Most Improved Player award.

Mitchell was a three-time GNAC academic all-star, receiving first-team CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-District and NABC Honors Court recognition in 2011-12.

Mitchell also was a javelin thrower in track for two seasons. As a senior in 2012-13, he was named the WWU Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year,

After graduating from WWU with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology-physical therapy, Mitchell went to Pacific (Ore.) University to obtain a Doctorate of Physical Therapy. He now works as a physical therapist in Lynden. He and wife, Ali, have a daughter, Liv. They travel internationally as much as possible.

Rico Wilkins

Lightning quick, Wilkins averaged 7.3 points and was particularly outstanding on defense for Western.

As a senior in 2012-13, Wilkins averaged 8.6 points on 42.2 percent (49-of-116) 3-point shooting. He scored a career-high 27 points, hitting 8-of-13 treys, in an Elite Eight semifinal loss to Drury MO.

After graduating from WWU, Wilkins played overseas for two seasons, going to Casablanca, Morocco and Copenhagen, Denmark. He currently is building his own real estate company called Modern Havens based in Dallas, Texas. Wilkins buys and sells properties in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex for short term and long-term investment purposes. He still plays and his love for the game definitely remains.

While at Yakima Valley CC, Wilkins was the NWAC Eastern Region MVP in 2009-10.

Paul Jones

Jones averaged 7.9 points and 4.4 rebounds, and was a huge defensive presence for the Vikings.

"One of the things Paul has the capability to do is that he hits the ground running. Some guys take longer to get engaged in the game -- not Paul. He played at a high level and brought a lot of intensity. That was his makeup. You knew what you were going to get from him. When you have that, it usually lifts the level (of play) of others. I don't know that anyone could ask for more." -- Brad Jackson

"The season was truly one of the best experiences in my life, from traveling on a plane for the very first time to, of course, winning the national championship ... I really enjoyed every moment of the season because it helped me become the player I am today as well as friendships that will endure forever. We brought something special to the Bellingham community and to the university that will last forever." -- Paul Jones

Jones helped Western to a 62-8 record during his two-year career, with one team winning the national title and the other reaching the national semifinals. As a senior in 2012-13, he was an honorable mention Daktronics All-American, first-team Daktronics West Region and NABC West District all-star, and a first-team GNAC all-star. The team co-captain, he averaged 14.4 points, shooting 58.4 percent (192-of-329) from the field, and 6.6 rebounds.

Following his career at WWU, Jones played abroad, traveling to such countries as Hungary, New Zealand, Uruguay, Mexico, Israel, Greece and Iceland. He also became a father and has a 2-year-old son.

Jones, a NWAC Northern Region all-star at Whatcom CC in 2009-10, brought instant energy, scrappy defense and the ability to adapt to whatever game situation he came into for the Vikings.

Dan Young

Young was able to give the Vikings muscle off the bench. He averaged 2.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, grabbing 15 rebounds versus Simon Fraser.

"At 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, Dan gave us a big body and was a really good rebounder and competitor. He really played a key role." -- Brad Jackson

Before graduating in 2012, Young met his wife-to-be Brenna. They got married in Bellingham, and shortly thereafter moved to Olympia where Dan became a financial advisor and now manages a branch with Edward Jones Investments. In 2017, they had a son, Decker.

"Growing up I loved the movie, `The Mighty Ducks,' and at the end I always remembered the team around a campfire singing `We are the Champions,' by Queen. In high school I would dream about winning a state title to that song. My senior year at Federal Way High School we lost in the state championship game to Ferris, and I knew the chances of ever living out that dream in college were slim to none. When I playing at Highline CC, we lost in the semifinals to Lower Columbia by a buzzer beater fade-away three-pointer by the worst shooter on the team. The chances got even slimmer. Fast forward two more years and we're counting down the clock, up by seven points, to win it all. The buzzer goes off, confetti is falling everywhere, and `We are the Champions' starts blasting through the arena. I felt every championship I had lost, every time I sat in my car before a game trying to visualize winning a title, had been vindicated for once and for all." -- Dan Young

Dane Thorpe

Thorpe played in 33 games, averaging 2.3 points. He was the team's Hustle Award winner.

After graduating from WWU in the spring of 2014, he had the opportunity to travel abroad. Upon returning, he helped start a fitness facility in Ferndale, Wash., called Locker Room Fitness. He is currently the general manager there.

Thorpe is married to the former Angie Alvord, who was a standout in volleyball for the Vikings when they placed second nationally in 2007.

"I knew we deserved to be at the Elite Eight, but having only watched it on TV made it pretty surreal. Getting to practice under the bright lights in the brand new NKU facility was amazing, and playing against the top teams in the nation in that type of environment is not something many people get to experience.

"Our team was really tight all season but we weren't always playing like it. After battling in a lot of close games at the end of the regular season, we learned how to play as a unit and share the load. We had such a deep team going into regionals, we didn't need to rely on one or two players. All of a sudden we had a handful of guys putting up numbers. All of us wanting the same result, a national championship!" -- Dane Thorpe

Damien Fisher

Fisher played in seven games, averaging 1.9 points and 1.6 rebounds. He was voted the team's Practice Player of the Year.

"I believe what made the team so special that year, and to a degree the following year, was the level of accountability that players held each other to. It's easier to hide from coaches, but it's not nearly as easy to hide from 12 teammates." -- Damien Fisher

As a senior the following year, Fisher was a GNAC academic all-star and named NABC Honors Court on 31-3 team that got to national semifinals. He also lettered two years in track as a javelin thrower.

Fisher is in his second year as the strength and conditioning coach at Western following two as a graduate student. He helped design the weight room for the renovated Carver Gym, which opened in 2017. He and wife Emma have one daughter, Lilly, with another due in March.

Cameron Severson

Severson saw action in 19 games, averaging 2.3 points on 59.3 percent (16-of-27) field-goal shooting. He played in every game as a senior in 2012-13 on a team that finished 31-3 and reached the national semifinals, averaging 8.2 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Graduating in the spring of 2013 with a bachelor's degree in marketing, Severson took over his father's boat in Petersburg, Alaska, and is currently involved in the family's fishing business. He and fiance' Chelsee have a daughter, Elin.

Alfred Davis

A 6-0 sophomore guard, Davis redshirted after transferring from Pierce CC where he was a second-team NWAC all-star. He graduated from Lincoln High School in Tacoma.

Though not seeing a minute of playing time, Davis was voted the team's Joe Morse Inspirational Player of the Year award by his teammates.

Davis played the next two seasons for Western.

Closing Thoughts

"I would say it was a combination of the amount of talent we had on our team and the confidence we had in each other. There were a number of guys on the team that I would have felt great about having the ball at the end of a game. We won a lot of tight games during the year and in the post-season, preparing us for the Elite Eight. Looking back, I think our depth had a lot to do with it as well. We were a team that had players as good as Paul Jones and Rico Wilkins coming off the bench, either of those guys could win a game for you." -- Chris Mitchell

"My fondest moment of the 2011-2012 season was of course winning the National Championship. It was the first time in school history that this was accomplished, so to forever be a part of WWU history; was a remarkable feeling." -- Paul Jones

"I like to look back at what Coach Jackson had told us all season long, `Someone has to win this thing, it might as well be us.' He was right, one team had to go unbeaten, and I think that saying took a lot of pressure off the task at hand. At the same time, I'll never understand how a group of guys in their late teens and early 20s were able to focus as much as we did, treating every game we played like our lives depended on it." -- Dan Young

"That year and that team was special to me coming off a medical redshirt year after tearing my Achilles five games into the season prior. For them to rehab me that whole summer and to have me ready to go, allowing me to play my part on such a great team, I am forever grateful to Western for the opportunity." -- Rico Wilkins

"We had great chemistry on that team and those are all my closest friends. To be out there with your friends and being a part of something as big as a national tournament was amazing." -- Richard Woodworth

"What comes to mind is our competitive nature. We would often have fiercely competitive practices in which we would battle for nothing more than bragging rights. These battles would instill a sense of pride and confidence in each of us because we knew each player cared deeply about winning and being the best team we could be." -- Rory Blanche

"Most definitely our ability to lock down on defense and put pressure back on the other team. We knew who needed the ball at the end of the game and who was allowed to switch guard players. A handful of us were very versatile so we could get away with me guarding a point or guard then drop quickly back to guarding their 7-0 post player. Teams got frustrated and out of the groove they were used to." - Zack Henifin

"I think this particular team had a pretty good track record defensively. We were able to maintain or even raise our defensive level as the game went on. A part of it is that we had good complimentary players. You could bring in Rico (Wilkins) and that changed the dynamic. You bring in Dan (Young). He was a real key for us. And Paul Jones. It's the same thing. They all bring something different to the table defensively." -- Brad Jackson

"The thing that I will never forget is the meeting we had in the team room where Coach Jackson was asking what our goals were for the upcoming season. Of course, among them were to win the GNAC regular season and tournament titles, as well as host regionals. There were a number of statistical goals that we agreed to strive for as well. But Zack Henifin shouted out about winning the national championship, and Coach Jackson kind of looked and said something along the lines of let's be reasonable. But from that point on I felt maybe that had been embedded in everyone's mind. Such confidence from one of our key players had to boost the confidence of other players. So it was always in the back of my mind. But I believe once we reached the middle of the season and were on top of the GNAC, it became a real possibility to us because we were such a deep and talented team at all positions." -- Paul Jones

"I remember the summer before coming back to Western (for the 2011-12 season), I sat down with my dad who wanted me to make some goals for myself and the team. When he said that, I turned to him and said we should win the national championship. He looked at me and laughed and said that's all well and good, but asked what I really wanted to accomplish. I was sort of kidding but at the same time I knew we had a really good chance. After the season, I reminded him of that and he said he couldn't believe that he was laughing about it last summer." -- Richard Woodworth

"This is a team that got better as the season went on. I believe they showed a great deal of mental toughness and determination. I told them after the (national championship) game that this accomplishment is something that will get bigger and bigger as time goes on. It's a tremendous achievement, one that they can be very proud of ... But I'm also really thrilled for the other players that have gone before them. We've had some really, really good teams through the years that haven't made it this far, and a lot of players who set the foundation for this achievement." -- Brad Jackson

By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015


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