Western will play Drury in Louisville on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the Div. II men's basketball championship game April 7 in Atlanta.
LOUISVILLE — It can be so easy to get caught up in the hype, to ease up on effort when a team owns the label of “the one to beat.”
But Western Washington hasn’t let anything blur its razor-sharp focus as it continues its journey to become the first repeat NCAA Division II men’s basketball national champion in nearly 20 years.
Junior guard Richard Woodworth talked about the determination and drive the fourth-ranked Vikings (31-2) have as they get set to battle No. 7 Drury (29-4) at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in a Final Four showdown at Freedom Hall.
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On the line is a trip to the national-championship game April 7 in Atlanta.
“We haven’t come into this year and acted cool just because we won it last year,” Woodworth said. “We … haven’t let all of the hype make the games bigger than they really are. We just stay focused and play basketball.”
Western Washington coach Tony Dominguez said his team’s morning practice Friday at Freedom Hall was similar to that of a typical off day during a road swing in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
His Vikings, who won their first 24 games this season after rattling off six consecutive wins at the end of last season, stuck to their routine and didn’t get caught up thinking too much about being on the doorstep of another national final.
As for the pressure of being the team with the biggest target on its back, it is something the Vikings have embraced, including Thursday, when they held off No. 8 Florida Southern, 96-82.
“It actually fuels us,” Dominguez said. “We achieved so much last year, and it would have been easy to say, ‘Who cares about playing as hard this season.’ Being the champ has kept us on our toes, and we have played with confidence.”
In December, the Vikings beat Drury 72-69 in Las Vegas.
“In the back of our mind, yeah, we won the game, but they are a totally different team now, and we are, too,” Dominguez said. “They are riding a lot of confidence. We didn’t watch the film from that game. We only watched them play last night.”
Drury, anchored by All-American guard Alex Hall (19.8 points per game), has won 21 in a row. Hall scored 33 points in the Panthers’ 84-75 win over South Carolina-Aiken in the Elite Eight on Thursday night.
One thing the Vikings know for sure is they will get Drury’s best shot. Senior guard John Allen said the challenges his team dealt with throughout the season, however, have prepared the Vikings.
“Everyone we have played has wanted to show they could play with the champs and beat the champs,” Allen said. “It has made us tougher and stronger, and it has helped us get here. Hopefully it will help us get into the national-title game.”