BELLINGHAM - If Colorado powerhouse Metro State really was the No. 1 NCAA Division II men's basketball team coming into Sam Carver Gymnasium, Western Washington University fans may be in for a third sensational season in a row.
No. 7-ranked Western's pulse-pounding 72-69 victory over the top-ranked Roadrunners on Saturday, Nov 30, was more than the Vikings' school and GNAC record 31st consecutive home win.
It also provided sheer, unadulterated encouragement for Western (4-0), which comes off consecutive school-record 31-win seasons, including the national title two years ago and a Final Four berth last season, but has a relatively inexperienced cast playing much of the key minutes.
"It wasn't our prettiest game, but we got the job done," said second-year head coach Tony Dominguez, looking a bit stunned, happy and thrilled at all the same time. "We just gritted it out at the end."
A truer statement has never been said at Carver Gym, especially since Dominguez, who served as an assistant for 17 years before getting his big opportunity, noted the Vikings had never served as host of a top-ranked team during his tenure.
Austin Bragg, Western' 6-foot-9 senior power forward, came up as big as his body, scoring six vital points in the final four minutes to fend off the Roadrunners (3-1).
Bragg finished 8 for 14 from the field and 4 for 6 from the line - including two critical late free throws - for a game-high 20 points before fellow senior Robert Harris got the chance to score Western's final point.
Harris went to the line with 4.6 seconds remaining and Western up 71-69. His first free throw bounced off the iron four times before dropping in - although it looked right on the mark from the start.
That meant the Roadrunners had to try a 3-pointer. The team's leading scorer, senior guard Brandon Jefferson, bounced the ball off the iron at the buzzer and the Vikings and their fans began a wild celebration.
From Western's standpoint, the only sad aspect of the evening was that so many students were home on Thanksgiving break.
"This is the most focused we've been all fall," said Dominguez, who has four more home games before his team has to hit the road. "Everyone gave us a great effort."
When asked if it was perhaps his best game at Western, considering that Metro State lost in last year's national title game, Bragg refused to, well, boast.
"I'm not much for individual stuff, but I will say it felt like a great team effort, just a great team effort."
The statistics backed Bragg up.
Western, which led by up to 10 points early in the second half, never trailed after taking a 5-3 lead on a 3-pointer from the corner by redshirt freshman Joey Schreiber, who sustained an apparent ankle injury with 5:31 left in the first half and could not return.
The Vikings finished 30 for 63 from the field as junior forward Colby Mitchell scored 13 points off the bench - 8 in the second half - and Richard Woodworth, Anye Turner and Harris all contributed 11 points.
Turner also had eight rebounds against the taller Roadrunners and the Vikings finished with 18 assists in contrast to only eight for Metro State.
Jeffrey Parker, Robert Oliver, Alfred Davis and Dane Thorpe finished with only a combined two turnovers as they all kept their poise during important stints off the bench.
Metro's Jefferson, who came in with a 22-point average and led the Roadrunners to a 32-3 record last season, was held to seven points until the final four minutes, when he added seven more to finish with 14. But the Vikings' sticky defense - Dominguez felt everyone contributed the needed intensity and effort - limited him to 5 for 11 shooting.
Western will try for No. 32 in a row at home on Thursday, Dec. 5, in a GNAC opener against Western Oregon. This time the place should be fittingly packed.
WESTERN WASHINGTON 72, METRO STATE 69
METRO STATE (3-1)
Nicholas Kay 5-16 6-9 17; Harrison Goodrick 7-8 1-2 15; Brandon Jefferson 5-11 3-4 14; Mitch McCarron 3-14 1-2 7; Will Sinclair 3-5 1-2 7; Jamal McClerkin 1-5 5-8 7; DeShawn Phenix 1-3 0-1 2; Obi Kyei 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-62 17-28 69.
WESTERN WASHINGTON (4-0)
Bragg,Austin 8-14 4-6 20; Mitchell,Colby 5-9 2-2 13; Harris,Robert 5-12 1-2 11; Woodworth,Richard 5-9 0-0 11; Turner,Anye 5-9 1-2 11; Schreiber,Joey 1-4 0-0 3; Parker,Jeffrey 1-3 0-2 3; Oliver,Robert 0-2 0-0 0; Thorpe,Dane 0-1 0-0 0; Davis,Alfred 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-63 8-14 72.
Half: WWU 35, MS 31
3-point goals--Metro State 2-8 (Nicholas Kay 1-3; Brandon Jefferson 1-3; Mitch McCarron 0-1; Jamal McClerkin 0-1), Western Washington 4-14 (Schreiber,Joey 1-3; Mitchell,Colby 1-1; Woodworth,Richard 1-3; Parker,Jeffrey 1-2; Oliver,Robert 0-1; Harris,Robert 0-2; Bragg,Austin 0-2). Fouled out--Metro State-None, Western Washington-Turner,Anye. Rebounds--Metro State 43 (Nicholas Kay 14), Western Washington 33 (Bragg,Austin 13). Assists--Metro State 9 (Brandon Jefferson 5), Western Washington 18 (Harris,Robert 4; Bragg,Austin 4). Total fouls--Metro State 17, Western Washington 21. Technical fouls--Metro State-None, Western Washington-None. A-876