WWU's NCAA Division II title truly a Washington victory
March 27, 2012
SEATTLE, Wash. -
Bud Withers, Seattle Times colleges reporter
After the last seconds had ticked down, and Western Washington had won the NCAA Division II national basketball championship, the first thing its coach wanted to do was share it.
Brad Jackson had a lot of sharing to do. He talked to Marv Harshman, the 94-year-old icon, and his son Dave. To Ken Bone, the Washington State coach, whose older brother, Len, Jackson helped coach at Seattle Pacific back in the 1970s.
He talked to Lorenzo Romar, the Washington coach, whose staff Jackson nearly joined when Romar took the UW job a decade ago.
Jackson's iPhone almost blew up. He spoke with Ed Pepple, the legendary former Mercer Island coach. To Denny Huston, Harshman's old lieutenant. Even to Dale Brown, the ex-Louisiana State coach who was an assistant at WSU back in the early '70s when Jackson played in Pullman.
"It's been a neat deal for everybody," Jackson said Monday from his office. "I think it's really good for basketball in the Northwest. We're kind of stuck up here, and on a national level, kind of an afterthought."
The wisest coaches know the deal. You chase championships, but they're collateral perks that often ride on the frailest of circumstances. So you coach for other reasons -- to make a difference, to help kids be the best they can be.
"I don't see it so much as validation," said Jackson, 59. "Everything has to fall right for you sometimes. You're just so thankful it could happen."
Sometimes the gods sniff and wave you away, sometimes they take a hankering to your cause. Early in Western's trip to the Elite Eight at Northern Kentucky University, Jackson was struck down by the flu. He had the good sense to stay out of practice and the media responsibilities the next day, and his players were healthy when they could have been hurting.
They came out against Midwestern State's hard man-to-man pressure in the quarterfinals, fell behind 16-2 and were teetering. But they got back into the game by halftime and won 64-63.
It was typical. Western was a steely team that didn't panic. It didn't blow people out, but it always seemed in control. In its six NCAA games, it never won in double digits.
In the final, facing Montevallo of Alabama, the Vikings looked about ready to succumb early in the second half as Montevallo scored in transition and off the dribble to go up by five.
Right on schedule, Western returned serve and retook the lead, and said Jackson, "I thought it was somewhat noticeable with the Montevallo guys. It really took the steam out of their sails."
Western had excellent balance, with four players who averaged double figures -- Rory Blanche, John Allen, Richard Woodworth and Zach Henefin -- and three others who combined to score another 22 points a game in Paul Jones, Rico Wilkins and Chris Mitchell. They could shoot the three -- a .388 percentage -- or beat you off the bounce, which the Vikings did frequently in the final.
What gratified Jackson was when his team (31-5) peaked. Western hit 54 percent against Montevallo, and in its last five games, never allowed the opposition to shoot as much as 41.
"I felt the championship was one of our better games," Jackson said. "To have five guys in double figures and play defense the way we did ... we talked a lot about playing your best in the toughest situations, and this team was able to do that."
Western had some experience a year ago, but Woodworth suffered a broken wrist and Wilkins a torn Achilles, and both redshirted. They returned healthy this year and injected some defensive tenacity.
So by late Saturday night, after a reception back at the hotel and a ton of well-wishes from former Western players, the Vikings went looking for a place to celebrate the program's first national basketball title. They found a bowling alley. Funny thing: Jackson routinely takes the team bowling as a preseason team-building exercise, but somehow, last fall it slipped through the cracks.
This is a career-crowning achievement for Jackson, once a feisty guard at WSU. Twice he threw his name out for the head-coaching job there -- first when Kevin Eastman exited in 1999, and again when Paul Graham was fired in 2003 -- but was rebuffed each time.
"When Dick Bennett was hired, I felt I had a pretty legitimate shot at it," Jackson said. "It was kind of right at the end of the process that they put that whole thing together."
He's a Western lifer now, able to dispense wisdom like this: "Like I told my players, this will just get bigger and bigger as you get older."
Count on it.
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