Tough Western Washington plays for first NCAA Division II men's title Saturday against Montevallo

WWUVIKINGSDOTCOM John Allen
WWUVIKINGSDOTCOM
John Allen
WWUVIKINGSDOTCOM

March 23, 2012

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -

By Seattle Times staff

Western Washington's improbable ride through the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament has followed the same formula as its season.

A tough team winning tight games.

The 12th-ranked Vikings (30-5) hope that course leads them to a national championship Saturday, when they face No. 22 Montevallo (29-7) at 10 a.m. PDT.

This is uncharted territory for the Vikings and longtime coach Brad Jackson. Western has never made it into a national-title game in the program's 110-year history, 27 under Jackson. It has only reached the Elite Eight twice, and the lone Final Four was in 2001.

Ask Jackson why the Vikings keep winning, and he pauses before ticking off three qualities: Tough. Composed. Confident.

"They don't get rattled easily, and they tend to fight real hard," Jackson said Friday. "We didn't play a lot of blowout games this year, so we're not a dominant team. But we did set a (school) record for total wins."

Those qualities were evident when Western trailed 11-0 Wednesday at the start of its quarterfinal game against Midwestern State. But the Vikings fought back and won 64-63.

"I didn't see any panic in our players," Jackson said.

The coach points to a tough, early December road trip to Montana State Billings and Seattle Pacific as a defining moment. Western won twice to raise its record to 11-1.

"I saw our players dig down for something extra in both games," he said.

Like their season, the Vikings are solid but not dazzling. Senior Rory Blanche, a 6-foot-6 all-region forward, leads the team in scoring (16.1), rebounding (7.0) and smarts (Academic All-American). Junior John Allen, a 6-1 guard from Mountlake Terrace and Shorewood high schools, is an explosive scorer (14.6).

Senior Zach Henifin, a 6-5 forward, is a homegrown kid from Bellingham who can defend anyone on the court. Sophomore Richard Woodworth, a 6-3 guard from Newport of Bellevue, is the floor leader after breaking his wrist last season. Both average 10.6 points. Guard Rico Wilkens, 5-9, adds quickness off the bench.

Add it up and you have a team no one expected to play for a championship facing an even longer shot for the title.

A key for Western will be slowing leading Montevallo scorer D.J. Rivera, a 6-4 senior guard who averages 21.6 points. Henifin will draw the difficult defensive assignment.

Montevallo of Alabama has won 10 straight games and 15 of its last 17, including an upset of defending champion Bellarmine of nearby Louisville 79-72 Thursday.

"A very athletic, very quick team," Jackson said of Montevallo. "We have to contain their penetration and control the backboards."

Jackson, who won his 500th game earlier this season, likes his team's chances: "We're very consistent on the defensive end, and we're good in big-game situations."