HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Coming out of halftime, Western Washington huddled beneath a banner that said: “NCAA Champions Play Here.” By making a big lead hold up, the Vikings gave themselves a chance to play for their first title.
Rory Blanche overcame foul trouble and scored 16 points on Thursday night, and the Vikings made a 20-point lead hold up for a 71-66 victory against Stonehill and a spot in their first NCAA Division II title game.
|DIVISION II CHAMPIONSHIP|
“I’ve played on a lot of teams,” said Zach Henifin, who scored 10 points. “And I’ve never made a championship. Amazing, that’s all I can say.”
The Vikings (30-5) set a school record with their 30th win. They got ahead by 20 against the fourth-toughest defense in the nation and held on, reaching the title game against either defending champion Bellarmine or Montevallo.
Brian Hamor scored 22 for Stonehill (25-9), the only unranked team in the national semifinals. The Skyhawks had won 10 in a row to reach the semifinals for the second time in school history. A bad start became too much to overcome.
“They’re strong, physical,” Stonehill coach David McLaughlin said. “It took us a while to get into that type of game.”
Blanche hit a 3 that got Western Washington out of a sloppy start and on a 21-3 spurt that put the Vikings ahead to stay. It seemed well in hand when Blanche hit a pair of jumpers during a 15-5 run that opened the second half and built the lead to 47-27 with 13 minutes left.
But it wasn’t.
“You couldn’t have been able to pick five people in that stadium that thought we’d be able to cut it to what we did,” McLaughlin said.
The momentum changed quickly.
“We got a little tired,” Western Washington coach Brad Jackson said. “I was pleased with the way we were able to hang on.”
Hamor, a point guard who has been one of the Skyhawks’ leading scorers during their winning streak, took the game into his hands by repeatedly driving for tough layups or passing back outside for open shots. His step-back 3 completed a 10-0 run that got the lead down to 50-41 with 8:02 left and gave Stonehill a sense it could still pull this one out.
“Offensively we were a little slow, so I had to be a little more aggressive,” Hamor said.
The Skyhawks called a timeout after Patrick Lee’s basket cut it to 63-59 with 46 seconds to go. In the Western Washington huddle, Jackson reminded his players what they had to do to hold on.
Don’t make mistakes. Don’t give up an open shot. Get the ball in the hands of John Allen.
“We said we wanted to manage the game out,” Jackson said. “We didn’t want to give up 3s.”
Allen, one of the nation’s best free-throw shooters at 88.9 percent, was fouled after the inbounds pass and made two free throws. After a Stonehill miss, Allen was fouled again and made two more. Western Washington went 7 of 8 from the line in the final 46 seconds to finish it off.