HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – When the chips are down for Western Washington, the Vikings always turn to senior forward Rory Blanche, and he usually delivers.
Blanche did just that in Thursday’s Division II national semifinal victory against the Stonehill Skyhawks.
With his team trailing 11-5 in the first half, Blanche knocked down his only 3-point attempt to spark a 15-0 run, putting the Vikings ahead for good against the Skyhawks.
“I don’t shoot a lot of 3s, but I feel confident when I step out there and they’re sagging [defensively] and I pulled up and hit that one,” Blanche said.
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For the second game in a row, Blanche picked up two early fouls and spent most of the first half on the bench. With their leading scorer on the bench, Blanche knew his teammates would pick up the slack for him, and they did just that as senior forward Zach Henifin stepped up with six first half points and rebounds.
“If I’m in foul trouble I know Zach will step up and I know Paul [Jones] will come in and do a great job,” Blanche said of his teammates. “Having such a deep bench like that really gives me a lot of confidence to play my game.”
Much like in the quarterfinal game, Blanche’s confidence was evident as he was able to rebound in the second half and lead his team in scoring. Blanche, a senior, led the Vikings with 16 points in the semifinal game on an efficient 7-of-10 shooting from the field.
While the Vikings had a balanced offensive attack with four players in double figures in points, it was Blanche they turned to when they needed a basket.
After having led by as many as 20 points in the second half, the Vikings went on a scoring drought of more than four minutes that saw the Skyhawks go on a 10-0 run, cutting the lead to 50-41. That’s when WWU turned to its leader once again.
Coming out of a time out, the Vikings set a low post, inside screen for Blanche. He caught the ball at the elbow and nailed the 15-foot jumper to end the scoring drought.
“We ran some things specifically for him,” head coach Brad Jackson said. “One of the things that Rory’s done a great job of in his career is understanding what he does well. He’s been a very, very consistent shooter, he knows how to get to spots on the floor to where he feels comfortable and he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
However, Blanche wasn’t finished after the jumper. As Stonehill continued to chip away at the lead, getting as close as four points down the stretch, Blanche proceeded to hit another jumper with less than two minutes to play, and then drained a free throw with 14 seconds remaining to help send the Vikings to their first national title game on Saturday.
After the game, Blanche deflected much of the praise, giving most of the credit to his teammates.
“The whole season has been really about our team and having guys come of the bench and make big plays for us,” Blanche said. “That’s been our theme the whole season.”