LACEY — The defensive switch left Robert Harris Jr. giving up 13 inches in height and nearly 100 pounds.
It was a mismatch on the block as the Western Washington University senior was tasked with stopping Sergej Pucar, Alaska Fairbanks’ 6-foot-11 center.
Pucar’s 2-footer fell short. The Serbian’s elbow, however, found its mark, connecting with Harris and sending the point guard crashing to the floor.
No foul, no matter.
Harris simply brushed himself off, then calmly drilled a 3-pointer at the other end.
The play seemed to help the second-seeded Vikings get back into gear after a sluggish start to the second half. They cruised from there to hammer the third-seeded Nanooks, 73-52, in the semifinals of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament Thursday at Saint Martin’s University’s Marcus Pavilion.
“This team had a lot of pressure placed on them before the season even started,” WWU coach Tony
Dominguez said. “This program with the national championship and regional championships has a great legacy. This team had a lot to live up to. We’ve battled through injuries. It seems like every other day we’ve had someone go down. So to get back to the conference finals shows a lot. This team has worked for everything.”
Jeffrey Parker paced Western Washington with 21 points, hitting 7-for-10 from the field and a career-best 5-for-6 on 3-pointers.
The Vikings (20-7) also received 14 points from Joey Schreiber and 10 points, nine rebounds and four assists from Harris.
Western Washington, the two-time defending regional champion and 2012 Division II national champion, advances to Saturday’s title game, where it will face top-seeded Seattle Pacific.
Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
The Falcons won last year’s tournament championship, defeating the Vikings, 72-70.
“We’re going to come out with a chip on our shoulder,” Parker said. “We want to prove we’re one of the top teams in the region.”
Alaska Fairbanks (18-10) shook off a chilly first-half shooting performance by opening the second half on a 13-1 run, cutting a once 24-point deficit in half to trail 39-27 with 161/2 minutes remaining.
The Vikings managed just one point and no field goals during the first 6 minutes of the half before Harris’ 3-pointer got Western Washington back into a permanent groove.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Harris said about the contact with Pucar down low. “I thought I was going to get the charge, but at least he missed the shot and we were able to get into a rhythm after that.”
A Parker 3-pointer pushed the advantage back to a comfortable 51-31 advantage – a lead that would grow to as many as 27 with just under 5 minutes to play.
“Coach is always telling me to stay aggressive,” Parker said. “That’s what I tried to do out there tonight.”
Parker hit four 3-pointers and scored 16 points in the first half as the Vikings took a gaudy 38-14 advantage into halftime.
The Nanooks took exceptional care of the basketball during the opening 20 minutes of play, turning the ball over just once, but they failed to help their cause by shooting an ice-cold 15.6 percent from the field.
Alaska Fairbanks missed 27 of 32 shots overall and 9 of 10 attempts from long range as the deficit ballooned before the break.
The Nanooks shot 29 percent for the game, going 18 of 62 from the field.
Anye Turner, a graduate of Black Hills High School, pulled down a game-high 10 boards to help the Vikings record a 43-29 rebounding edge.
Ronnie Baker scored 18 points for Alaska Fairbanks, which also got 12 points from Pucar.
Seattle Pacific 73, Western Oregon 57: Patrick Simon scored 20 points, and David Downs, the GNAC Player of the Year, scored 18 points to power the top-seeded Falcons to a win over the fifth-seeded Wolves in the semifinals.
Seattle Pacific, which has won 14 out of its last 15 games, will seek a second consecutive GNAC tournament crown, taking its 25-5 record and No. 18 national ranking into the Saturday’s title contest against WWU.
Devon Alexander scored a team-high 15 points for Western Oregon (18-12).