By John Boyle Herald Writer
The most important game in the longest winning streak in Western Washington hoops history just might have been a loss.
Yeah, you read that right.
The Vikings have won a school-record 24 consecutive games against NCAA Division-II competition dating back to their national championship run last March. Mixed in that streak are two exhibition losses at the beginning of this season to Division-I schools — the University of Washington and Duke.
Competitive in both games, the Vikings found value in the defeats. If they could be competitive against a national power like Duke, they could handle any challenge they faced the rest of the season.
“It really prepared our guys and gave them ultra confidence,” said Viking coach Tony Dominguez, whose team tries to keep its Division-II streak alive tonight against Montana State-Billings.
“We do reflect on that Duke game quite a bit. They’re one of the best teams in the country, and for us to play with them in Cameron … Our guys reflect on that quite a bit and it really gives us confidence to feel like there shouldn’t be a Division-II opponent with the talent of (the UW and Duke). So, we know if we struggle, it’s not our opponent, it’s us.”
Dominguez, a Cascade High graduate who is in his first year replacing longtime Western head coach Brad Jackson, wasn’t the only person who came away from the Duke loss impressed with his team’s effort on that October afternoon in Durham, N.C.
“That was a really good basketball game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after beating WWU. “I like their team so much. You can tell why they won the Division II championship. … Their kids are fearless.”
Krzyzewski went on to predict good things for Western, and he was right. Since losing to the Blue Devils, the Vikings have rattled off 18 consecutive victories, winning all but four of those games by double digit margins. Western now is the country’s No. 2 ranked Division-II team heading into its games this week.
As far as encores go, it’s hard to top what Western is doing this season. Yet as well as the Vikings have played, as talented as they are, it’s easy to assume that the defending champs should be having a good season. But when you consider that the Vikings lost their head coach when Jackson took a job on Lorenzo Romar’s coaching staff at Washington, and that the Vikings graduated two of their top four scorers in Rory Blanche and Zach Henifin, another dominant season was hardly a given.
But with Dominguez taking over after spending 17 years as an assistant under Jackson, the transition was as seamless as anyone could have hoped for.
“I don’t even think there was a transition, or much of one,” said senior guard John Allen, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate. “It was a little different at first, but for the most part we do the same stuff. Practice is a little more intense. Coach Dominguez is a little more intense than Coach Jackson, but aside from the little differences, it’s pretty much the same, so it’s been an easy transition.”
Dominguez credits Jackson with making the change easy, in large part because for years Jackson had given a lot of responsibility to Dominguez. So even though Dominguez had never been a head coach before this season, it doesn’t really feel much like a new job.
“I owe a lot to Coach Jackson, because he allowed me to do so much,” Dominguez said. “I didn’t feel like I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t nervous. I’ve always been a faithful guy, but this year especially, I just kind of feel like, ‘it’s not my path, so whatever ends up happening happens,’ instead of getting stressed out.”
A big part of Western’s strong title defense to this point has been the improved play of Allen, who leads the team in scoring (17.8 points per game) and assists (4.2). In the Duke loss, Allen performed well enough that Krzyzewski said the guard could probably play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, home of the Blue Devils.
Dominguez joked that those comments might have gone to Allen’s head briefly, but said that as the season has gone on, he has seen a more complete player from Allen, who last year was second on the team in scoring, but averaged fewer assists and more turnovers.
“What he’s really done a great job of doing this year is learning how to manage the game for the team and himself rather than just playing ball,” Dominguez said. “He has really learned how to manage the team, to know when a certain guy is hot or when a certain defense arises, who to hit and how to hit him. If it’s his own number, then he’s capable of calling that.
“Whereas last year I think he was just playing ball and I don’t know that he recognized game situations as much. Obviously we won big and he was a huge part of that, but this year it just seems like he’s calmer, really focused on the team and the team’s goals, and just determined.”
To keep their streak alive, the Vikings will have to beat Montana State Billings, the last Division-II team to beat Western, then knock off Seattle Pacific, currently the fourth-ranked team in the country. And the Vikings know that if they want to continue their streak, they’ll have to do so by ignoring it.
“The only way that we can stay focused is to focus on each game, each day,” Dominguez said. “We have two games this week, and our goal is to go 2-0.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.