Getting to Bellingham is relatively easy for most — simply point the car north on Interstate 5 and stop before hitting Canada.
John Allen’s path was slightly more complicated, but upon arrival he certainly made the most of it.
A senior guard for Western Washington University’s men’s basketball team, Allen will look to lead the Vikings to a title at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament, which begins Thursday at Saint Martin’s University’s Marcus Pavilion.
On Friday, Western Washington, the GNAC’s top seed with a 26-1 record, will play the winner of Thursday’s game between Montana State Billings and Alaska Fairbanks.
A GNAC tournament title is one of the few items not present on Allen’s impressive résumé, which already includes a national championship. The Vikings lost to Montana State Billings in the semifinals a year ago, 82-78.
The Vikings capped last year’s remarkable season by defeating Montevallo, 72-65, for the NCAA Division II crown with Allen scoring a team-high 14 points.
It was the prize at the end of a long journey for Allen, who leads WWU in scoring at 17.5 points a game.
Allen didn’t play his senior year at Mountlake Terrace High
School — forced to sit out the season after transferring from Shorewood.
After graduating, he opted to walk on at Washington State University, where he redshirted his freshman year before appearing briefly in 13 games during the 2009-10 season.
“That was tough,” Allen said about the lack of actual game experience he had during that three-year span. “I was always practicing and playing basketball, but it was as if I didn’t play in a real game for three years.”
Allen thought about transferring after his first year in Pullman, primarily due to the departure of coach Tony Bennett, who left WSU to take the head coaching job at Virginia. But he decided to give the school and new coach Ken Bone one more season.
Ultimately, Allen’s original assessment was proved correct.
“It just wasn’t a right fit,” Allen said about WSU. “So I looked elsewhere.”
Elsewhere turned out to be Western Washington. It would eventually become the perfect location for Allen, but that’s not to say some adjusting wasn’t needed.
“Basically my main purpose (at WSU) was to make everyone better at practice by pushing them. That was my role for two years,” Allen said. “When I got to Western, everything was completely different. I was asked to help lead a team as a sophomore. It was a big transition.”
Big? Absolutely, but Allen still excelled.
Allen, the first player in GNAC history to earn conference player of the week honors in back-to-back weeks, averaged 14.3 points a game during his first year at WWU in 2011, setting the foundation for Western’s championship season the next year.
“Right before last year we started talking about a national championship,” said Allen. “It seemed like we had all the pieces. But there’s a difference from believing you have everything in place and the talent to make a run and actually going out there and doing it.”
With Allen leading the charge, the Vikings went out there and did it.
Allen scored double-figure points in 30 of the 36 games he played in last year, averaging 14.6 points a game. He was named most outstanding player at the West Regional, while earning second-team all-GNAC honors for a second consecutive year.
The cherry on top, of course, was claiming the national championship.
“It took a bit to get (to Western Washington),” Allen said, “but winning it all just made everything I went through worth it.”
It would have been a perfect ending, but Allen still had a year remaining.
How do you follow up the greatest season in school history?
Allen and his teammates found a way.
The Vikings opened the year with 24 consecutive wins, extending their winning streak to a school-record 30 games, before losing at Alaska Fairbanks, 77-73, on Feb. 21.
“You never want to lose, but it’s better to lose now than later when your season is on the line,” said Allen, whose play during a preseason exhibition game against Duke drew praise from Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We’re going to get everyone’s best game. That comes from winning a title. This team just takes it game by game and grinds it out. That’s why we’ve been successful.”
It’s a level of success Allen plans to carry through the GNAC tournament and possibly another national title.
Great Northwest Athletic Conference basketball tournaments
Where: Marcus Pavilion, Saint Martin’s University.
What’s at stake: Winner gets an automatic berth into the Division II West Regional tournament.
Tickets at the door: Adults — tournament reserved seating $55, tournament general admission $40; reserved single game $15; general admission single game $10. Seniors and students — tournament general admission $20; single-game general admission $6.
Game 1: No. 6 seed Seattle Pacific (16-10) vs. No. 3 seed Montana State Billings (17-9), 5:15 p.m.
Game 2: No. 5 seed Northwest Nazarene (19-7) vs. No. 4 seed Alaska Anchorage (17-9), 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. No. 2 seed Simon Fraser (22-4), noon
Game 4: Game 2 winner vs. No. 1 seed Western Washington (23-3), 2:15 p.m.
Saturday’s championship game
Game 5: Friday’s semifinal winners, 5:15 p.m. (Root Sports)
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
G Sasha King, 5-6, sr., Alaska Anchorage
An ankle injury kept the Seawolves point guard on the bench for four games in late January, and after her return Alaska Anchorage won seven of its next nine games to qualify for the GNAC tournament. The conference’s No. 2 assist leader at six per game, she also can score in bunches. Had 34 points and hit nine 3s in an upset win over then-No. 22 Northwest Nazarene on Feb. 16.
G Bobbi Knudsen, 5-8, jr., Montana State Billings
A do-it-all player for the Yellowjackets who is on pace to finish in the top five in program history for scoring and assists. Ranks second in the conference in scoring (17.9), first in assists (6.1). Also is eighth in Division II in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.39). In high school, she was a two-time 800-meter state champion and holds the Montana Class B state record at that distance.
G Megan Hingston, 5-9, jr., Northwest Nazarene
GNAC’s leading scorer (18.9 ppg) recently became the 53rd player in conference history and the 23rd player in NNU program history to surpass 1,000 career points — with still her senior season ahead — and should pass 500 points for the season in today’s quarterfinal against Seattle Pacific. She matched her career-high of 32 points in regular-season finale win over SPU.
F Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, 6-2, sr., Simon Fraser
A power forward with speed and athleticism, Raincock-Ekunwe was named the GNAC player of the year Tuesday. A member of the Canadian Developmental National team in 2011, she leads the nation in field goal percentage (65.1). She’s the only player in the conference to average a double-double (16.9 ppg, 12.7 rpg) and owns multiple GNAC records, including single-game rebounding (24).
C Britt Harris, 6-2, sr., Western Washington
A big reason why the No. 7-ranked Vikings have been consistent all season is Harris (14.4 ppg), who has scored in double figures in 11 of the past 12 games. She is almost untouchable around the basket, converting nearly 60 percent of her field goals — third in the nation in Division II.
DID YOU KNOW?
Simon Fraser, located in Burnaby, B.C., is the only Canadian school that is an NCAA member in either Division I, Division II or Division III. After completing a two-year NCAA provisional membership process, the Clan became a full-fledged member of the NCAA on Sept. 1 and is eligible for all NCAA postseason tournaments beyond the GNAC tourney. Simon Fraser’s women’s basketball team, which is nationally ranked, is likely to receive a West Regional berth regardless of the outcome of the GNAC tournament.
Game 1: No. 6 seed Central Washington (14-12) vs. No. 3 seed Alaska Anchorage (18-8), 5:15 p.m.
Game 2: No. 5 Montana State Billings (16-13) vs. No. 4 seed Alaska Fairbanks (15-11), 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. No. 2 seed Seattle Pacific (23-3), 5:15 p.m.
Game 4: Game 2 winner vs. No. 1 seed Western Washington (26-1), 7:30 p.m.
Saturday’s championship game
Game 5: Friday’s semifinal winners, 7:30 p.m. (Root Sports)
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
G John Allen, 6-1, sr., Western Washington
Not many point guards have a shooting touch like Allen’s. The Vikings’ floor leader and GNAC player of the year has kept the defending national champions’ motor running all season – WWU had a streak of 30 consecutive Division II victories dating back to last season before losing to Alaska Fairbanks on Feb. 21. The Vikings average a GNAC-best 85.2 points a game, led by 17.8 a game from Allen.
G Kyle Fossman, 6-0, jr., Alaska Anchorage
If the GNAC had a most improved player award in its all-conference voting, Fossman likely would be a front-runner. At 6 feet, he doesn’t have much size, but he has shown to be a clutch player on both ends of the floor. He’s also the guy you want at the free-throw line — he has made 81 of 94 free throws this season.
G Riley Stockton, 6-4, soph., Seattle Pacific
A last name of Stockton? You know he must be talented. Stockton, whose uncle is NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, is making a name for himself with the Falcons. The GNAC’s defensive player of the year averages 7.3 rebounds a game — a league-best — as a guard. He and backcourt mate David Downs combined to average 8.9 assists a game.
G Mark McLaughlin, 6-6, jr., Central Washington
The basketball path for McLaughlin has settled in Ellensburg, and the former Division I signee has made a grand entrance in Division II. His 22.2 points a game not only leads the conference, but also ranks first by almost five points a game. But does McLaughlin have the supporting cast for the Wildcats to make a tournament run?
F Jerrell Crayton, 6-7, sr., Montana State Billings
Big man with quick hands? That’s Crayton. Labeled as one of the top forwards in the GNAC with averages of 16.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, he’s also racked up 40 steals in 27 games. The former Boise State player also has the ability to put on a memorable dunk show.
DID YOU KNOW?
Alaska Fairbanks had one of the biggest turnarounds in all of Division II this season. In 2011-12, the Nanooks finished last in the GNAC at 2-16 and 5-23 overall. Led by point guard Pat Voeut, the Nanooks had a 10-win improvement (15-12 overall, 10-8 GNAC). The team’s biggest victory this season was the 77-73 upset win over then No. 2-ranked Western Washington.firstname.lastname@example.org