By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
The 70-degree temperatures and sunshine glowing on the rolling hills of Kentucky bluegrass served as reminders that the Western Washington University men’s basketball team was far from home Tuesday afternoon.
And yet the Vikings certainly felt like they belonged.
On the verge of playing in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II men’s tournament for the first time in 11 years, WWU took in the sights around Northern Kentucky University on Tuesday but didn’t lose focus on the task at hand.
“We’re definitely glad to be here, but we didn’t come here to lose,” senior John Allen said via telephone from the NCAA championship site in Highland Heights, Ky., just across the river from Cincinnati. “We came here to win some games. It’s definitely a business trip.”
The Vikings (28-5) might be relative newcomers to the Elite Eight, having last qualified in 2001, but they have reason to be confident as they head into today’s 11:30 a.m. (PDT) opener against fifth-ranked Midwestern State (26-3), a school from Wichita Falls, Texas. Not only did WWU emerge from the same West Region that has produced championship-game participants in each of the past three seasons, the 12th-ranked Vikings are 5-1 against nationally ranked opponents this season.
WWU’s only loss to a ranked team came when current No. 2 Alabama Huntsville nipped the Vikings 77-74 in Las Vegas on Dec. 17.
“Our team is a team that’s had to fight for everything,” said head coach Brad Jackson, who is in his 27th season at WWU. “Over the course of the year, we’ve gotten better and better. But the players still have that mindset, that they have to fight for everything.”
The Vikings’ season hit a road bump when they lost in the opening round of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament two weeks ago, but they bounced back to knock off three teams, including Seattle Pacific in the final, for the West Region crown.
“These players showed at the beginning of the season that they had the ability,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing with this team is that they have this mental toughness that has been with them all season.”
Allen, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate who started his college career as a walk-on at Washington State University, said he’s excited to be in Kentucky but not overwhelmed by the stakes … or the competition.
“The way we played against top-25 competition all year definitely helped our confidence,” he said.