Western Washington's bid to win a second consecutive NCAA Division II national championship in men's basketball is over.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Richard Woodworth made two free throws with 4 minutes, 48 seconds to play in Saturday’s NCAA Division II national semifinal against Drury, slicing the Panthers’ lead to six, Western Washington had a glimmer of hope.
Once down 24 points, the defending national-champion Vikings were within striking distance of finishing a remarkable comeback. But they ultimately fell short, losing 107-97 at Freedom Hall as their dream of a second consecutive championship ended.
Drury plays third-ranked Metro State (31-3) for the national championship next Sunday in Atlanta.
Woodworth scored 19 points, including those two free throws after a technical foul was called on Brandon Lockhart, and he said the fourth-ranked Vikings (31-3) never lost their faith even when they fell behind 71-47 with 13:38 to go.
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“We were definitely confident,” Woodworth said. “We battled back even though things didn’t look great. We played hard, but the bad start hurt us. It’s tough to come back against a good team.”
Without question, the start to this game against the No. 7 Panthers (30-4), winners of 22 consecutive games, was a nightmare in motion for Western Washington.
Alex Hall, the All-American guard for the Panthers, drilled four three-pointers in the opening three minutes and left the Vikings looking up at a 14-6 deficit.
Woodworth eventually made a jumper to trim the Drury lead to 21-19, but the Panthers responded and rolled into halftime with a 50-32 lead.
Hall dropped 35 points on the Vikings, including 21 from long range, and Drury shot 57.6 percent from the field.
“We were not at our best at the beginning on defense,” Western Washington coach Tony Dominguez said. “We were not switching on the catch and he was open for easy shots. It was frustrating. We dug ourselves a hole against a very good team, and it rattled us.”
Despite being rattled, the Vikings still managed to shoot 49.3 percent (37 of 75) from the floor and they finished with 23 second-chance points.
The problem was every time they made a run, the Panthers had an answer. Lockhart scored 24, Ian Carter finished with 19. Teddy Simniok and Cameron Adams scored 12 points apiece.
Drury had suffered a 72-69 loss to the Vikings on Dec. 18 in a holiday tournament in Las Vegas.
“We got off to a great start and defended them very well,” Drury coach Steve Hesser said. “Western is an outstanding team, and we knew they would make a run. I’m proud of our guys for digging in at the end.”
Reserve Rico Wilkins paced the Vikings with 27 points. He was 8 for 13 on three-pointers, including a clutch three-pointer that cut the Drury advantage to 79-67 with 8:24 remaining. Paul Jones had 16 points and 11 rebounds. Austin Bragg scored 11 and Cameron Severson, who drove in for a layup and drew a foul that helped slice the Drury lead to 83-76, scored 10.
Dominguez was pleased that his team continued to battle, but he thought that perhaps the pressure of being a defending champion got to his team in the end. The Vikings were hoping to become the first repeat champs since California State Bakersfield in 1993 and 1994.
“Our team showed a ton of heart, but we had a huge target on our back and it felt like an us-against-the-world mentality every night,” Dominguez said. “It got to us in the end.”
Still, even with the loss, the season was one to remember for the Vikings.
“We played hard all year, and our effort was there today,” Woodworth said. “I’m proud of the way we battled, and I enjoyed this run. It’s just tough that it has to end.”