Saturday, March 24, 2012
W. Washington wins Division II title
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Five players in double figures, and that didn't even include the leading scorer for the season. Pretty much sums up how Western Washington got to its first title game and won it.
It took everybody, and then some.
John Allen scored 14 points and the Vikings' balanced offense carried them to a 72-65 victory over Montevallo, Ala., on Saturday in the Division II championship at Northern Kentucky University.
When the buzzer sounded on yet another close win -- this one the biggest of them all -- Western Washington's players hugged at midcourt while strands of blue, yellow and orange confetti fell from the ceiling and covered the court.
Everyone got showered in small strips of colored paper.
"It's pretty surreal," said Richard Woodworth, who had 10 points. "That's about as good as it gets -- five players in double figures and our leading scorer is not one of them."
Rory Blanche, who led the Vikings (31-5) to the title game by averaging 16.1 points, hit a couple of baskets early, then blended in with an offense that went 9 of 19 from behind the 3-point arc and shot 54 percent from the field.
"It's like a lot of games we've had this year," coach Brad Jackson said, after setting the commemorative net next to his microphone at the interview table. "This team has been a true team in their balance.
"Maybe the biggest thing that sticks out to me is their toughness. They have a mental fortitude and tenacity to hang in there in games."
After moving ahead by 12 points, they finished it off behind Allen, one of the nation's most accurate free throw shooters at 88.7 percent. He made four in a row to end Montevallo's late comeback.
"I had to watch from the end of the bench and I was way more nervous down there," said Zach Henifin, who scored eight points during a decisive 17-4 run before fouling out.
After getting their championship caps and shirts, the Vikings saw a blue-and-white banner lowered from above their basket that said: "Western Washington 2012." They'll pack that along with the net for the trip back to Bellingham.
"It's a great feeling that we brought one back to the West Coast, to the Pacific Northwest," said Blanche, who finished with nine points.
Both teams were making their first title-game appearances. Western Washington lost in the semifinals in 2001. Montevallo (29-8) reached the round of eight in 2006 and 2007, losing its opening game both times.
D.J. Rivera led Montevallo with 20 points. Antoine Davis added 16 in a guard-driven offense that got very little from its front line.
Montevallo knocked off defending champion Bellarmine in the semifinals behind Rivera, who's tough to keep out of the lane because of his quickness. Rivera shoots left-handed, just like his uncle, the late Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount.
Rivera also has experience in the NCAA's biggest tournament. He was part of the team that took Binghamton to its first NCAA Division I tournament in 2009, and scored 20 points in a first-round loss to Duke. The program then imploded, with coach Kevin Broadus suspended for recruiting violations and six players kicked off the team, including Rivera.
Western Washington didn't let him take over the title game.
"They did a good job helping (on defense)," Rivera said. "We couldn't make shots."
Western Washington denied the Falcons' guards open lanes to the basket in the first half, cutting them off whenever they headed inside. Instead, the Vikings got the more deliberate pace they preferred and a back-and-forth game that was tight most of the way through -- five ties, 16 lead changes.
Rico Wilkins leaned over Rivera and hit a jumper from just inside the arc with 1 second left in the half, giving Western Washington a 30-26 lead. Rivera was only 2 of 8 from the field in the first half for nine points.
The Falcons got their fast break moving in the second half. Rivera drove for a left-handed scoop shot, and Davis had a fast-break layup during an 8-0 run that put Montevallo up 40-35 early in the second half. The Falcons needed their guards to have a big game -- forwards Drico Hightower and Marvin Fitzgerald missed 14 of their 17 shots combined.
This lead didn't last long. Western Washington responded with the decisive run.
"They just made a bunch of shots," Montevallo coach Danny Young said. "They made some really tough shots, especially down the stretch. And we couldn't get anything going. We had a lot of attempts from 5 feet away and we couldn't put it in the basket."
Henifin scored eight points during the decisive run that gave Western Washington the first double-digit lead of the game, 61-49 with 6:17 left. Henifin also picked up his fourth foul during the run.
Montevallo went to a pressure defense that changed the momentum again. Rivera had a couple of baskets and a free throw, Jonas Brown made a 3, and Davis' free throw cut it to 68-64 with 58 seconds left.
Allen finished it off, making four in a row on consecutive trips to the line in the final 49 seconds.