Feb. 3, 2014
PORTLAND, Ore. -
Senior guard Richard Woodworth has seen it all during his four-year basketball career at Western Washington. The team won an NCAA Division II National Championship in 2012, and made it to the Final Four last season when Woodworth was a junior.
Most recently, he played a pair of excellent games as the Vikings beat Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Anchorage last week to earn Great Northwest Athletic Conference Team of the Week honors. Woodworth provides senior leadership, and in many ways is the last remaining string connecting WWU's current team to its championship squad from two seasons ago.
"Richard has had a lot of pressure on him since all of his buddies have graduated," Viking head coach Tony Dominguez commented on the weight that comes with perennial supremacy in the land of Division II basketball. "He has been a great leader for us all year long, and our anchor for the last three years that has been one of the reasons we have been successful."
Leading up to perhaps WWU's biggest game of the season a few weeks ago, Woodworth suffered a sprained ankle just days before a premier matchup against Seattle Pacific on ROOT SPORTS. The Vikings suffered a tough 76-60 defeat that snapped their incredible 36-game home-court winning streak inside Sam Carver Gym, but have won five straight games since in a momentum-shifting turn around.
"After we lost to SPU we did a lot of soul searching," Dominguez said. "Our focus has always been looking at things one game at a time and trying to have fun, and we have just tried to stick to that."
It appears the Vikings have bought into the more relaxed mindset, as they currently sit tied for first place with SPU in the GNAC standings with a record of 9-2 in conference play. A big part of the Vikings' good standing has been the play of Austin Bragg, who ranks fifth in the GNAC in scoring with 17.1 points and leads the conference in rebounds with 9.3 per game.
"He is just emotionally tough and knows when and how to exert himself," Dominguez commented on Bragg's exceptional self-control. "He understands what the team needs him to do, and on some nights he might feel he has to score more and others he might feel his teammates are clicking and get them the ball."
Most recently, Bragg became just the third player in GNAC history to notch a triple-double, as he accomplished the rare feat with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in WWU's 99-76 win over Alaska Anchorage on Saturday. Woodworth had 24 points in the contest, and freshman Jeffrey Parker also contributed two dozen after filling a significant void left by a season-ending injury to starter Joey Schreiber.
"Our guys have responded well and we are trying to work with a team that changes every other day," Dominguez said regarding an injury-plagued season, highlighted by the loss of Schreiber. "Jeffery had a phenomenal game against Anchorage, and it's been great to see that guys have been able to step into some major roles for us."
Another key player for WWU has been Anye Turner, who is averaging 10.6 points per game and ranks second to Bragg in the GNAC in rebounds per game with 8.6. "Anye brings a lot of energy and passion, and is also a guy that buys into the game plan on every given night," Dominguez said about the play of his 6' 7" junior forward. "Another player who we think we haven't seen the full potential of yet is (freshman) Dana Abe, who just became eligible and who has a ton of talent."
Having all four of its games against the Alaska schools out of the way, Dominguez recognized that the two GNAC opponents provided WWU with some of its toughest challenges of the season. "Alaska Fairbanks is very well-coached with a very tough, grind-it-out style," Dominguez said regarding his team's win over then-first place UAF on Thursday.
"As far as Anchorage goes, Rusty is a legendary coach up there, who has always been first class and always impresses me," Dominguez said in a nod to UAA's 10-year veteran skipper Rusty Osborne. "We were just clicking last week and trying to move the ball more on Saturday than we did a few nights before."
Despite having the Alaskas out of the way, the path to the GNAC tournament is tough, with five of the Vikings' remaining seven contests coming on the road. Included in the final stretch is a rematch against SPU inside Brougham Pavilion in Seattle on Feb. 15, but for now WWU's lone focus lies on the task ahead, in the form of a single game this week against Simon Fraser.
"SFU is a scary team, and its record is very deceptive," Dominguez commented on the Clan's misleading 2-9 mark in conference play. "The talent level of that team is very high, and as far as I am concerned that is the only game we will be worrying about this week."
WWU crosses the border on Saturday to challenge the Clan at 7 p.m. Pacific time inside the West Gym on the SFU campus in Burnaby, B.C. For Woodworth, it will likely be the final collegiate game he plays on international soil, and hopefully for the Vikings another step towards a postseason run that the senior has helped make a regularity during his tenure at WWU.