HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Montevallo may have had the best player on the floor for Saturday’s National Championship game with Elite Eight Most Outstanding Player D.J. Rivera, but one man could not defeat five as Western Washington captured its first national title.
All season long head coach Brad Jackson has preached a team approach to his Vikings and it was never more on display than on Saturday as his team had five players score in double-figures.
Junior guard John Allen’s 14 points led the way, followed by center Chris Mitchell, who scored 13 points, going 4-of-5 from behind the 3-point line. Senior Zach Henifin had 12 points and junior Paul Jones and sophomore Richard Woodworth each contributed 10.
“This game was a lot like a lot of games we’ve had this year,” Jackson said. “This team has been a true team in terms of the balance and that is obviously indicated by the scoring and they shot the ball quite well I thought.”
The balanced scoring is nothing new for the Vikings as four players averaged double-figures in scoring all season, led by senior forward Rory Blanche’s 16.1 points per game. However, in the title game, Blanche was not one of the players to post at least 10 points finishing one point shy.
In Thursday’s semifinal victory, Blanche was who the Vikings would turn to when they needed a basket, but on Saturday it was a different player who stepped up to quell a Falcons run.
In the second half, with Montevallo on a 4-0 run and on the verge of breaking the game open, Jones knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game at 44. That sparked a personal 4-0 run for Henifin before fouling out.
“He [Henifin] had a mismatch there and we decided to go to him and he was able to take advantage of that,” Blanche said. “There were mismatches that we knew we had and other teams don’t quite understand just what our players can do, we were able to take advantage of that and it really helped out.”
Then, after opening up a 65-53 lead the Falcons threatened again, going on a 6-0 run, until Allen slashed to the hoop for a layup stopping that threat.
“I think our guys did a wonderful job of learning which guys did what well and being able to do that in games and that’s normally when we have pretty good balance,” Jackson said.
The team approach was not limited to the offensive end. The Vikings held the Falcons to 37.5-percent shooting from the field, the fifth consecutive game they have held an opponent under 40-percent shooting. The key to such a defensive performance, according to Blanche, was keeping Montevallo’s guards out of the lane.
“We really focused on that before the game,” Blanche said. “Our guys did a phenomenal job, they’ve been good defensively all season long and tonight they were great.”
Team defense was also the plan against the explosive Rivera, using multiple defenders to try and give him different looks and keep him guessing. And if Rivera did get into the paint there were two Vikings there to help, forcing him to turn the ball over four times.
“We started with Zach [Henifin] on Rivera, then Richard [Woodworth] and I thought Paul Jones did a great job on him in the second half, we were just trying to put different people on him,” Jackson said.
The team first approach should be alive and well for next season as Western Washington only loses four players from its national-championship team and return two of its top-four scorers.