Vikings' fearless attitude has been key to season, postseason success
March 21, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
ANDREW LANG / THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
No matter how the NCAA Division II Elite Eight pans out for the Western Washington University men's basketball team, odds are WWU won't wilt under the pressure of playing on a big stage or in a tight game.
Coach Brad Jackson's Vikings play some of their best ball in close contests. They've proved it all season.
Western owns a record of 9-2 in games decided by six or less points and, while the numbers prove the Vikings have a knack for winning close games, it was an early December, 2011, road trip when Jackson discovered a certain characteristic about his team which was foretelling to the way Western has thrived in close games all season.
"I feel like our mental toughness is something that emerged pretty early on this season," Jackson said in a phone interview. "We started out by playing against quite a few good teams in the Disney Classic. We had two good outings and one not so good. Then we had a road trip at (Montana State) Billings and (Seattle Pacific University) and both were very tough, hard-fought games. Both came down to the last 6 or 8 minutes. Our players kind of relished those situations and battled through. That was the first indication to me that we are pretty mentally tough and can perform in pressure situations."
And the Vikings' capability to play well in the final 10 minutes of the second half should be tested again when WWU faces Midwestern State in the national quarterfinals at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 21, at the Bank of Kentucky Center in Highlands Heights, Ky.
During the 2010-11 season, Western had a record of 6-5 in games decided by six points. And while much of the same team is intact from last year, Jackson said he thinks the added shot of confidence the 2011-12 version of the Vikings has received is due, in large part, to the natural maturation process Western has undergone in a year.
One of WWU's three seniors, Rory Blanche, believes the Vikings' fearless attitude largely developed from playing top competition early in the season.
"It's really been apparent in some of our wins," Blanche said in a phone interview. "First of all, we've played really good competition. We played Alabama Huntsville and they're a really good team in the Elite Eight. We really believe we can win and that it's just a matter of time. Whenever we get down, we're mentally strong and pull together to get close wins."
The Vikings are 5-1 against Top 25 teams, have beaten Seattle Pacific, which has been drifting in and out of the Top 25 all season long, three times and with four berths into the NCAA Division II West Regional, the GNAC conference overall has proved it's the toughest conference on the West Coast.
Jackson also said he believes Western has taken on a tough attitude this season due to the play and development of senior Zach Henifin.
Sure, Henifin gives Western solid production on the offensive end, averaging 10.9 points per game, third best on the team, but Jackson said Henifin's true impact on the team is made in areas in the game that may not jump off a stat sheet.
"From my perspective as a coach, one thing (Henifin) has been doing really well is being able to recognize what he does well," Jackson said. "He's a tremendous defender when he puts his mind to it. He can guard any position on the floor. He really likes to bang with the big guys. That is a lot of little stuff, but he loves that physical contact."
While the hustle plays Henifin routinely makes and his defensive contributions showed throughout the West Regional, more than anything, though, Jackson said the Vikings have truly adopted the attitude Henifin plays with on the court.
"The one thing about Zach's natural make-up is that he is a confident young man," Jackson said. "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 matchup situations."
The Vikings also have a number of key role players Jackson can insert into the lineup in various situations, which allows Western to continue its suffocating defensive pressure late in games, when other teams may not have as deep a bench.
"I think this particular team has a pretty good track record defensively," Jackson said. "We've been able to maintain or even raise our defensive level as the game goes on. A part of it is that we have good complementary players. You can bring in Rico (Wilkins) and that changes the dynamic. You bring in Dan Young. He's been real key for us. And Paul Jones, it's the same thing. They all bring something different to the table defensively. We have our weakness, certainly, but those guys have been key for us."
To Blanche, the answer to Western's season, ability to bounce back from a tough loss to Montana State Billings in the GNAC Tournament and the Vikings' late-season run lie in WWU's focus and belief in one another.
"Overall, I think there is just a really strong focus and determination to do well," Blanche said. "We have all the pieces to be the best team in the nation. I think when we realized it was possible, we've all been determined to make that our goal for our final game."
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