HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Western Washington rallied from an early 14-point deficit, shot 61 percent from the field in the second half, and slipped past Midwestern State 64-63 on Wednesday.
The Vikings will play Stonehill, a 91-90 winner against West Liberty, in Thursday’s national semifinal.
Senior forward Rory Blanche hit a jump shot with less than eight minutes to play to give the Vikings the lead for good at 50-48 and junior guard Rico Wilkins followed with a 3-pointer from the right corner to give Western Washington its largest lead of the game at 53-48.
“We were able to get up a little bit and sustain that lead the rest of the game,” Blanche said.
The three-time defending South Central region champion Mustangs cut the lead to one twice in the final two minutes, but the Vikings held on. Junior forward Kevin Grayer had a chance to drive for a winning bucket after rebounding the second of two missed free throws by Vikings junior forward Paul Jones, but Grayer never got a shot off before time expired.
The Vikings made 14 of 23 shots in the second half after hitting only 10 of 30 in the first half, but made only 12 of 25 free throws in the game.
“We were a little rattled by their defense early on,” Western Washington head coach Brad Jackson said. “It took us awhile to adjust, but we shot the ball a lot better from the perimeter in the second half. We didn’t shoot it very well from the free throw line. We’d like to think we can do a little better there, but at this point you take them any way that you can and we’re pleased to be advancing.”
Midwestern State shot better from the field in the second half at 45 percent than it did in the first (36 percent), but could not keep Western Washington off the scoreboard.
“Our guys really competed,” Midwestern State head coach Nelson Haggerty said. “I felt we started the game guarding really well. We got rebounds. We finished stops. We made some baskets underneath. As they started to get offensive rebounds on us, they really started to get their confidence and make some baskets.”
Blanche led Western Washington with 15 points. Junior guard John Allen scored 14 and sophomore guard Richard Woodworth added a season-high 13 points to go with eight rebounds.
“We have a lot of weapons on our team,” Woodworth said. “We have a lot of guys that score and do a lot of things. We’re a real deep team. I feel like tonight, I saw an opportunity and took advantage of that opportunity. We were a little flat, I just thought start crashing the boards, start being a little more aggressive, get the team going a little bit. It was just one of those nights that it was my night.”
It wasn’t the Vikings’ day early on.
Midwestern State opened the game with an 11-0 run as Western Washington struggled to make shots. The Vikings started went 1-for-8 from the field and had only one offensive rebound.
“We just made a couple of substitutions just to change things up a bit and see if we could get going, trying to get guys to relax,” Jackson said. “We knew that we weren’t playing as we could and we certainly weren’t shooting as we could. Most of the year we’ve been a team that has pretty good composure and I really didn’t sense a lot of panic on our players’ part. They just felt like it was a matter of time.”
The Vikings finally righted themselves and scored seven consecutive points to pull within 16-12 before eventually tying the game at 27-27 at the final buzzer of the first half on a put-back by Blanche.
“They were playing really good defense in the first half,” Blanche said. “They have some really big, physical forwards down low. Hats off to them, they came out with a lot of intensity. After that we were able to get our feet underneath us in the first half. I told the team it was time to make our run.”
The Vikings scored on their final four possessions of the first half, then took their first lead of the game on a Woodworth jumper to start the second half.
“When we started to make a run, when we closed the gap at halftime, that was really big for us,” Jackson said.
“I didn’t think we executed very well in the first half. In the second half we started to loosen up and were able to move the ball better. I felt like the second part of the game we started running things and got a mixture of shots that helped us a great deal.”
Senior forward David Terrell led all scorers with 21 points for the Mustangs, most in the paint as Midwestern State held a 38-20 advantage down low. But it wasn’t enough.
“In the second half, we just couldn’t keep those guys out of the paint for some reason,” Haggerty said. “They were able to get second-chance shots. A team in the second half shooting 61 percent from the field and 43 percent from three, that’s not something we’re used to. I think that was the game.”
Next up for the Vikings is Stonehill, who rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit Wednesday.
“They have really good balance, they play really good defense,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of hustle on that team. It will be a very interesting matchup between two ball clubs.”