WWU advances to NCAA Division II National Championship game

Richard Woodworth

March 22, 2012

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Western Washington University opened up a 20-point lead then survived a late rally to defeat Stonehill College, 71-66, in a semifinal game of the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Elite Eight on Thursday at The Bank of Kentucky Center on the campus of host Northern Kentucky University.

The Vikings, ranked No.12 in the latest National Association of Basketball Coaches/NCAA II Top 25 Poll, improved to 30-5 and advance to their first-ever national championship game, facing the winner of the semifinal between No. 4 Bellarmine, Ky., and No. 22 Montevallo, Ala., on Saturday at 10 a.m. PDT. Saturday's championship contest will be televised on CBS.

An average audience of 3.1 million people has watched the NCAA II Championship in recent years.

Forward Rory Blanche (Sr., Ashland, OR) led Western with 16 points on 7-of-10 field goal shooting.

Stonehill, based in Easton, Mass., had a 10-game winning streak snapped and completed its season 25-9. Guard Brian Hamor led the Skyhawks with a game-high 22 points, and forward Patrick Lee added 14. Western 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 to left.

The lead was never more than nine after that, and eventually shrank to four three times in the last 1:23, the final one at 65-61on two free throws by Hamor 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. Guard John Allen (Jr., Brier/Mountlake Terrace), who finished with 13 points, was 4-of-4 in that stretch.

"This is a dream come true for us," said Blanche, who moved into 13th in Western career scoring with 1,264 points. "At the end, we were able to execute. John Allen has been great in that situation all season."

Guard Richard Woodworth (So., Bellevue/Newport) had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Vikings, and forward Zach Henifin (Sr., Bellingham) had 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, helping Western establish a 39-29 advantage on the boards.

"Zach had a great game," said Western coach Brad Jackson. "He was a real catalyst for us. He has been the guts of our team with his quiet leadership."

Stonehill opened up an 11-4 lead less than six minutes into the game, but the Vikings took control of the contest by holding the Skyhawks scoreless for more than six minutes, running off 16 consecutive points to take a 20-11 lead with 8:27 left in the first half. Six different Western players scored in the charge, which helped the Vikings hold a 32-22 lead at halftime.

"I was pleased with how we started the game and how we stretched out the lead in the second half," said Jackson. "In the second half, we got a little tired and Stonehill made a nice run at us."

Western held the Skyhawks to 40.4 percent (23-of-57) field goal shooting, including just 30.8 percent (8-of-26) in the first half.

"I think our guys have been working hard on defense the entire season, but we've really stepped it up the last four games," Jackson said.

The Vikings, the champions of the West Region, reached the semifinal with a 64-63quarterfinal triumph over Midwestern State.

Stonehill, the champions of the East Region, reached the national semifinals with a 91-90 victory over No.3 West Liberty in the quarterfinals.

Vikings to play for national title


HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Rory Blanche, Zach Henifin, and their teammates on the Western Washington University men's basketball team will have a chance Saturday, March 24, to win a national title in a men's team sport for the first time in school history.

The Vikings built a 20-point lead early in the second half and held on to beat Stonehill College 71-66 on Thursday, March 22, in an NCAA Division II national semifinal game at Northern Kentucky University's Bank of Kentucky Center.

The Vikings will play Montevallo in Saturday's final at 10 a.m. PDT.

"It's a dream come true really," said Blanche. "The whole season has been really about our team and having players come off the bench making big plays for us."

It's the first trip to the men's basketball national final for the Vikings. Western Washington advanced to the semifinals in its only other trip to the Elite Eight in 2001. The Vikings own the 1998 NAIA softball national championship and have won seven straight women's rowing national championships.

These players relish the chance to add to that trophy case.

"I played on a lot of teams from high school to community college to now Western that never made a championship," Henifin said. "This feels amazing. It's all I can say."

The Vikings made eight of 10 free throws in the final 46 seconds of the game to hold back a furious comeback attempt by Stonehill.

Junior guard John Allen made four straight free throws, junior guard Rico Wilkins made both of his attempts and Blanche and junior forward Paul Jones each hit one of two to increase what had been trimmed to a four-point lead back to 71-63.

Senior forward Patrick Lee's half-court buzzer-beating 3-pointer accounted for the final margin.

"Unlike yesterday, we made our free throws," Vikings coach Brad Jackson said.

Blanche led the Vikings with 16 points. Allen scored 13, junior guard Richard Woodworth Woodworth scored 12 and Henifin added 10 points to go with a game high 12 rebounds.

Stonehill senior guard Andre Tongo's first field goal of the game with a little more than 11 minutes to play started a string of 10 unanswered points and a 15-2 run that got the Skyhawks to within six points at 52-46 with less than six minutes to play. Two free throws by junior guard Brian Hamor cut the deficit to five, 59-54, with 2:20 to play and a 3-pointer by junior guard Adam Fazzini from the left wing made it 61-57 with 1:23 to play.

The Skyhawks would get no closer.

"We just basically said that we wanted to manage the game out, we did not want to give up threes," Jackson said. "Keep people in front of us."

A fast start helped the Vikings hold the lead. Western fell into an early hole for the second straight game and trailed 11-4 in the early minutes Thursday, but used a 16-0 run to take control of the game and outscored Stonehill 28-11 to close the half.

Blanche sparked the offensive outburst with a 3-pointer to cut Stonehill's early lead to 11-8. The Vikings simply took off from there.

"Coach gives us a lot of free rein when we're out there," Blanche said. "I don't shoot a lot of threes, but I feel confident when I step out there and they're sagging. I just pulled up and hit that one. I feel like a lot of the players feed off of others' energy, so when I get pumped up it kind of helps the whole team to lift up."

Despite the early deficit, it was a much different start than the quarterfinal. Western Washington trailed Midwestern State 16-2 in the early going of Wednesday's matchup before rallying for a 64-63 win.

"I was pleased with how we started the game and actually the first half," Jackson said. "I thought it was good. In the second half, I thought we had pretty good balance offensively."

The Vikings took their biggest lead of the game, 47-27, on a put-back by Woodworth early in the second half, but Stonehill started to find its offensive rhythm at that point.

"They made a nice run because we got a little tired," Jackson said. "I was just pleased we were able to hang on and certainly pleased that we're in the final."


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