Over the last eight games of the season the Western Washington University men’s basketball team went 8-0, with an average margin of victory of more than 18 points over that span.
The Vikings beat the top two teams in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, Western Oregon University and Seattle Pacific University. Western Oregon is ranked No. 7 in the latest NCAA Division II West Region rankings, and Seattle Pacific is No. 10. But despite a 23-point win over Western Oregon and a 10-point win over Seattle Pacific, WWU was not ranked in the West Region.
So the Vikings (18-10, 11-7 GNAC) know they have to do one thing at the GNAC Tournament to punch a ticket to the regional round of the NCAA Division II National Championship — win.
“(The winning streak) gives us momentum and confidence going in,” WWU forward Jeffrey Parker said in a phone interview. “We know we have to stay focused and bring everything we have. We’re very excited.”
The GNAC Tournament has been around for five seasons now, and in that time the Vikings have been GNAC regular season champions twice, West Region champions twice and won a national championship. The one thing they haven’t done is win a GNAC Tournament.
That has been a motivational point for WWU coach Tony Dominguez this season.
“Coach brought it up a couple of times,” Parker said. “We believe we’ll be the first team to do it and that we have all the tools and the talent to do it.”
The eight game win streak to end the season was the biggest confidence builder, as it took WWU from on the cusp of not making the tournament to being the No. 5 seed.
So what changed from a time when the team was 10-10 overall and just 3-7 in the GNAC, to when it looked unstoppable?
“We didn’t really have an exact moment, but I feel like the guys, each one of them just realized that after the loss to UAA (Alaska-Anchorage) you have to get it together,” Parker said. “Come together because you don’t want that opportunity to win a championship or make the tournament slip away.”
Up to that point, the Vikings had let a couple of early leads slip away and come up just short in big comebacks. After the Alaska-Anchorage loss, a dominant WWU team took over, with the closest win coming by six points over the eight-game span.
“That’s what happened was everything just started to click,” Parker said. “It really was just a couple small things that we really fixed. Coach had a lot to do with that. He built us up.”
It started with the team coming together and being closer.
“We brought in a lot of new faces this year and it took us awhile to get used to each other, and coach had a lot to do with that,” Parker said. “We started hanging out and once we did that, it made it easier on the court.”
The sophomore forward played a big part in the win streak, as he averaged a team-high 16.1 points per game this season. By being the leading scorer, Parker had to take on a bigger leadership role, as well.
“I know the guys look at me for leadership, they look at me to be an example,” Parker said. “I build them up and encourage them. I’m definitely the scorer. I can’t have no slacking anywhere. I’m always working on everything all around, especially off the court, too.”
Parker emphasizes the off court elements of leadership, and sees that as part of the reason the team clicked down the stretch, he added.
“You have to conduct yourself highly off the court as well as on the court,” he said. “Make the right decisions, don’t follow the crowd. Growing up in Oakland, there’s always trials out there, but you have to make sure you make the right choice.”
Now that the team is playing together and jelling as a unit, the road to the NCAA Tournament has become easier, but not a given. Parker thinks the hardest part is in the Vikings’ heads.
“We have to come in here really mentally prepared because we have to win back to back to back,” he added. “We have to maintain and get a lot of rest to maintain focus.”
The Vikings quest for its first ever GNAC Tournament title begins against the last team that they lost to, Alaska-Anchorage, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at Montana State University-Billings.