The Great Northwest Athletic Conference men’s championship game came down to the wire Saturday, March 4, at the Marcus Pavilion in Lacey.
The Western men’s basketball team defeated Western Oregon University 71-69 to claim the GNAC tournament title after having already secured the regular season title. With the victory, the Vikings locked up a spot in the NCAA Division II national tournament.
Senior guard and GNAC Player of the Year Taylor Stafford was named tournament MVP after scoring 33 points in the game and 64 total points in Western’s two games.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Stafford said. “Credit [goes] to my teammates and coaching staff. I’m new to the team here, so I appreciate them for accepting my role.”
The two teams traded baskets for much of the first half, until the Vikings held Western Oregon scoreless for a seven-minute stretch to end the half, giving them a 36-28 lead.
“This is one of the most special teams I’ve been around and it’s not just talent. This particular group is bound together. They want to see everyone succeed.”
But Western Oregon closed up the gap in the second half. Stafford sunk a pair of free throws late in the game to put the Vikings up by three with under a minute left. Western Oregon drove down the court to make a layup before intentionally fouling Stafford, sending him back to the line. Stafford made one of two free throws to put the Vikings up by two.
“I missed the last free throw at the end, but I’ll get on myself about that later,” Stafford said. “I just want to enjoy this. It feels amazing.”
Western Oregon outscored the Vikings in the second half 41-35, but it wasn’t enough as the Vikings were able to hold on in the final minutes as Western Oregon’s attempt at a game-winning 3-pointer bounced off the rim.
“Our energy was down,” Stafford said. “We just had to stay together. Throughout the game we just finally wanted it, and we got it done.”
Western’s head coach Tony Dominguez said the GNAC is a tough league to play in, and to win both the regular season and tournament title is a tremendous accomplishment.
“They deserve all the credit,” Dominguez said. “It wasn’t our best performance, but they really gritted it out.”
The GNAC tournament started in 2011, making this the first conference tournament title the Vikings have earned since its creation.
“This is one of the most special teams I’ve been around and it’s not just talent,” Dominguez said. “This particular group is bound together. They want to see everyone succeed.”
Senior forward Jeffery Parker had a quiet night recording four points and one steal after a record setting performance the night before, but said he was glad to get the title and had fun doing so.
“It feels really good,” Parker said. “This has been a long road for me. I’ve never had one of these and it’s the first one in Western’s history.”
The Vikings were selected as the third seed in the NCAA Division II West Regional. They will play sixth seed Chico State at noon Friday, March 10, in San Diego.
“We’re excited about whatever comes our way,” Dominguez said. “It’s great to be in the NCAA tournament and have a chance again.”