BELLINGHAM - The undefeated No. 5-ranked Western Washington University men's basketball team changed its annual ROOT Sports-televised rivalry against Central Washington University from a stunning upset to a sweet celebration in 5.5 seconds.
That's how long it took WWU guard Rico Wilkins to drive the length of the floor and find teammate Paul Jones under the basket for the game-winning bucket with 2.2 seconds left.
Western's final offensive possession didn't go exactly how coach Tony Dominguez drew it up, but the Vikings were far from picture perfect much of the game.
"Not really at all, actually," said guard Cameron Severson of how Western executed its game-winning possession compared to what Dominguez planned. "Coach had a big play drawn up for a flex screen and a back-door cut and everything. I guess the only thing that worked out was the back-door cut. Paul finished the play, so it doesn't have to look pretty."
Following a free throw by Central's Derrick Davis to put the Wildcats in front 85-84 with 7.7 seconds left in regulation, Severson inbounded the ball to Wilkins, who quickly made his way up the right side of the court. He cut left inside toward the free-throw line, drew a double team and found Jones open cutting to the basket along the left baseline. Jones received Wilkins' pass and converted a layup with 2.2 seconds as the sellout crowd of 2,320 erupted in celebration. Davis got a decent look with an 18-foot jumper as the buzzer sounded, but the shot clanked off the rim, giving the Vikings a drama-filled 86-85 Great Northwest Athletic Conference win Thursday evening, Jan. 10, in Bellingham.
Fans stormed the court and celebrated with players, as the Wildcats, who gave the Vikings all they could handle, looked on in disbelief.
"It feels great. Anytime we can get a big victory at home in front of a big crowd like this ... and just Central and the rivalry and the history, it's definitely great to beat them," Jones said. "They beat us last time we played them, so we kind of owed them one."
As for the final bucket, Jones, who matched Severson with a team-high 18 points, was just happy to be in the right spot at the right time.
"I saw the gap, and I felt it," Jones said. "(Wilkins) gave me the ball, and I finished. It was just close, and I'm glad I made it, and I'm glad we won."
Severson, who combined with Wilkins and Anye Turner for 37 points off the bench, said the game's finish, especially given the circumstances the game was played in, was unbelievable.
"It was in doubt with about 8 seconds to go after they made that free throw," Severson said. "Rivalry game, Central, TV: I mean, that's storybook stuff right there. It was great. ... (Carver Gym) was electric. We have been doing this TV game, I think this is the third year. Since I've been here, none of the others have even come close. This was nuts. The last free throw, the guy stepped up and hit it, but I think that was the loudest I have ever heard a place. It was a fun game."
The win gave Dominguez, who was officially stripped of his interim tag earlier in the day in an announcement by Western Athletic Director Lynda Goodrich, his first without the interim label. It also marked Western's 19th-straight victory dating back to last season. The mark is a new GNAC record. The Vikings (13-0, 4-0 GNAC) also claimed sole possession of the conference lead.
In spite all the accomplishments, the win was far from the Vikings' best effort. Central shot 57.6 percent from the field compared to WWU's 41.3 percent. Western struggled to contain CWU's fast-paced attacking style in a back-and-forth contest complete with 17 lead changes and seven ties.
"They were just playing real well," Severson said. "They were real good at breaking us down off the dribble, which we really haven't had problems stopping that this year. We're high scoring, but we pride ourselves on defense. They gave us problems tonight. We're going to have to watch the film and make up for it next time."
The Wildcats, who led the GNAC in scoring entering Thursday's game averaging 91 points per game, were led by GNAC-leading scorer Mark McLaughlin's game-high 26 points.
Where Western made up for its defensive woes was rebounding, especially the offensive boards. The Vikings took advantage of Central's lack of height and out rebounded the Wildcats 43-25. WWU recorded 23 offensive boards to CWU's three and scored 25 second-chance points. Central was scoreless in second-chance opportunities.
"We have a couple of guys where it's just instinctive for them," Dominguez said of his team's rebounding abilities. "So I think tonight, Cam Severson and Paul Jones, they did that real well."
Jones, Austin Bragg and Chris Mitchell each grabbed five offensive boards. Severson had four. Bragg and Mitchell finished with 10 rebounds apiece.
Neither team led by more than six points in the first half. Western built a six-point advantage three different times and took a 44-41 lead into halftime.
Central went ahead 60-59 on a Jordan Coby layup with 11:12 left in the second half and held its lead until Wilkins drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:43 to go. Back-to-back buckets by Jones and John Allen pushed Western's lead to 82-78, but McLaughlin scored on three straight possessions to even the game at 84 with 41 seconds left.
Wilkins missed a 16-footer with 12 ticks left, and Davis was fouled during a scramble for the ensuing rebound. Davis made the back end of his two free throws to set up Jones' game-winning score.
Wilkins finished with 15 points, Allen added 11 and four assists, and Bragg recorded a double-double with 10 points to match his 10 boards.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
WESTERN WASHINGTON 86, CENTRAL WASHINGTON 85
CENTRAL WASHINGTON (8-5, 2-3 GNAC)
McLaughlin, Mark 10-15 6-6 26; Magee, Brandon 7-10 4-5 18; Davis, Derrick 5-7 1-3 11; Coby, Jordan 4-5 0-0 10; Holmes, Chris 4-7 0-0 9; Williams, Dom 3-9 2-4 8; Gross, Trey 1-2 0-0 3; Walker, Nate 0-3 0-0 0; Starr, Jordan 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 34-59 13-18 85.
WESTERN WASHINGTON (13-0, 4-0 GNAC)
Jones, Paul 6-10 5-6 18; Severson, Cameron 7-13 4-4 18; Wilkins, Rico 6-11 1-1 15; Allen, John 4-14 2-2 11; Bragg, Austin 4-10 2-2 10; Mitchell, Chris 3-13 2-2 9; Turner, Anye 1-1 2-4 4; Woodworth, Richard 0-2 1-2 1; Fisher, Damien 0-0 0-0 0; Thorpe, Dane 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 31-75 19-23 86.
Half: WWU 44, CWU 41
3-point goals--Central Washington 4-14 (Coby,Jordan 2-3; Holmes,Chris 1-2; Gross,Trey 1-1; Williams,Dom 0-4; Magee,Brandon 0-1; McLaughlin,Mark 0-3), Western Washington 5-20 (Wilkins,Rico 2-6; Allen,John 1-4; Mitchell,Chris 1-5; Jones,Paul 1-2; Woodworth,Richard 0-1; Thorpe,Dane 0-1; Bragg,Austin 0-1). Fouled out--Central Washington-None, Western Washington-None. Rebounds--Central Washington 25 (Walker,Nate 6), Western Washington 43 (Bragg,Austin 10; Mitchell,Chris 10). Assists--Central Washington 16 (Williams,Dom 4; Magee,Brandon 4), Western Washington 16 (Woodworth,Richard 5). Total fouls--Central Washington 20, Western Washington 21. Technical fouls--Central Washington-McLaughlin,Mark, Western Washington-Jones,Paul. A-2320
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.