The defending national-champion Vikings advance with a 96-82 victory over Florida Southern.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Even as Florida Southern pressured Western Washington late in the second half, generating all the momentum it could for a last-ditch rally attempt, the Vikings men’s basketball team never went into panic mode Thursday night.
The Vikings were calm and cool under pressure, and when push came to shove, they stepped up on defense in an NCAA Division II national quarterfinal at Freedom Hall.
Ahead by nine points with two minutes to play, the defending national champions solidified their defense and made clutch baskets down the stretch to pull away for a 96-82 win — punching a ticket to their second consecutive Final Four.
Western Washington will play at 11:30 a.m. Saturday against Drury or South Carolina-Aiken for the right to advance to Atlanta on April 7 for the national final at Philips Arena.
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“We settled down and locked up on defense,” junior forward Austin Bragg said. “Our effort was great and we hustled. We also finished on defense with rebounds. Our goal is always to win the rebounding battle.”
Bragg had a lot to do with the success of fourth-ranked Western Washington (31-2) on the boards. Bragg ripped down 14 rebounds and also poured in 17 points. The Vikings held a 50-36 rebounding advantage and outscored the eighth-ranked Moccasins (27-6) 60-30 in the paint.
Bragg made a big difference in the opening half by establishing a strong presence in the paint. He scored back-to-back layups near the midway point of the opening half, including one off a steal, to push the Vikings’ lead to 21-14 with 11:22 to go. Bragg racked up five steals.
“I tried to bring effort and energy,” Bragg said. “I got a lot of my offensive rebounds, but my success was from the success my teammates had. It was a team effort.”
Western Washington coach Tony Dominguez knew his team would have to play well inside to be successful against the Moccasins, who were riding an eight-game winning streak.
Western Washington won its first 24 games this season.
“We know you have to be physical to win at this level, but we wanted to use our length to our advantage more than our muscle,” Dominguez said. “Our guys did a good job of that and we played with a lot of passion and desire. Our guys willed themselves to make plays when it mattered.”
The Vikings shot 55.1 percent (38 of 69) from the floor.
The Vikings overwhelmed the Moccasins with their balance. John Allen scored 22 points, Richard Woodworth 17 and Paul Jones 10. Woodworth also grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists.
Florida Southern was paced by Kevin Capers’ 27-point performance. The Moccasins shot 35.8 percent (24 of 67) from the field and gave up 21 points off 15 turnovers.
Dominguez was impressed with the way his team handled the pressure late in the game as the Moccasins pressed to try to force turnovers and spark a comeback.
He also thought his team made solid decisions on the offensive end. The Vikings had 19 assists.
“We shot a good percentage tonight because we made the extra pass and got everyone involved,” Dominguez said. “We took what the defense gave us instead of forcing shots.”
The Vikings are aiming to be the first team to repeat as Division II men’s champions since Cal State Bakersfield in 1994.