EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. -When West Liberty is playing team defense to the best of its capability, there isn't a whole lot the opposition can do to limit the carnage. Just ask Glenville State coach Stephen Dye.
"Their defense, they are just so intelligent and make you play so fast that it affects you,'' the fifth-year coach said. "They play well defensively and they've gotten better at it over the years.
"They've been playing that system for a while that Coach (Jim) Crutchfield has, and each year they get better at it.
West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield addresses his team during the Atlantic Region Tournament in East Stroudsburg, Pa. Saturday.
"It's a well-oiled machine.''
One that left a grease mark on the Pioneers for the third time this season, Saturday.
Cedric Harris stuffed the stat sheet with team-highs of 22 points, seven assists and five steals while also grabbing six rebounds, as second-seeded West Liberty (27-3) knocked off seventh-seeded Glenville State (18-11) by an 88-72 score in an Atlantic Regional quarterfinal at East Stroudsburg University's Koehler Fieldhouse. The Toppers will play Indiana, Pa., at 5 today in the semifinals.
"Not just because we saw pressure up top that was better than we've seen for a while, but also the recovery fom it. If the steal wasn't there, the numbers weren't there because we were hustling back. For those reasons it was the best defense we have played in a while,'' said Crutchfield, who watched his team win a 10th consecutive regional contest, including the last seven by double digits. "I liked the way we played.
"It was a good level of intensity and good team basketball from start to finish.''
After failing to win a conference title for the first time in five years, whispers of doubt outside the West Liberty program have intensified. Playing the Atlantic Regional somewhere other than the ASRC for the first time during that same span, the Hilltoppers wasted little time imposing their will on the Pioneers.
Glenville jumped to a 6-5 lead as Donte Morales dropped one in from in from long distance for three of his game-high 24 points, but West Liberty responded, thanks to a suffocating, full-court press that had the Pioneers dazed for much of the afternoon, with eight quick points and didn't trail again.
"This whole week we really stressed in practice that defense is a five-man operation," said junior C.J. Hester, who had 13 points and seven rebounds to pass John Wolosinczuk for fifth all-time at West Liberty with 855. "We watched the film and you could tell in our last game in Charleston that sometimes we only had two or three, and we should have had all five.
"We made that a point of emphasis to make sure we had all five guys engaged on defense."
The Hilltoppers led by as many as 19 in the first half as Seger Bonifant scored 10 of his 13 and Shawn Dyer notched 12 of his 15. But foul trouble started to creep in - Dyer finished the first half with three while Bubby Goodwin, Hester, Bonifant and Keene Cockburn had two apiece - and Glenville State was able to cut it to seven with a late, 9-0 run. Goodwin took the air out of the Pioneers balloon just before the half with a 3-pointer from the right wing to make it a 46-36 halftime lead.
"No matter what you've got to limit your mistakes against West Liberty, because they take advantage of it so well. If you make two turnovers in a row that could be a six- or nine-point swing," Dye said. "They didn't even shoot the ball that well but they're hard to guard. We couldn't guard them man or zone ? we threw about four or five different defenses at them and it didn't matter.
"When they're playing the way they were (Saturday) it's going to be very hard for anyone to beat them."
A three-point play from Morales at 14:23 of the second half got the Pioneers to within eight (56-48), but Hester stepped to the line and dropped in two free throws to stretch it back to 10, and that was just the beginning.
Dyer, Goodwin, Hester and Bonifant connected on four consecutive 3s for a game-high, 22-point lead and the rout was on.
"You can't simulate their shooting and their intelligence on defense in practice when you are playing against your practice squad," said Glenville senior Kevin Gray, who was limited to seven points and four rebounds. "We know how they're going to play and we had a whole week to prepare. It's the mistakes that were basically what it was.
"We worked hard out there and worked as a unit and tried our best, but they just have a very, very intelligent team."
A team that wasn't ready to go home.
"Before the game I was talking to the guys and said 'when you're tired, think of the three seniors - me, Keene (Cockburn) and Jeff (Yunetz),' '' said Harris, who passed Mike Mathey for third in the Hilltoppers record book for career assists, with 512. "We don't want this to end, so we needed to play hard until the end."
The Hilltoppers will need another effort like this one, in which they shot 43 percent, turned the ball over just eight times and had assists on 20 of their 31 baskets, against IUP, which knocked off West Chester, 75-68. It's the fourth time in the last five years the two clubs have met in the regional, including last season's championship, which was won by West Liberty, 86-63.
"You bank on IUP being here every year because they're here every year. They have been here before and they know how to win,'' Crutchfield said. "They've got a very mature team.
"We've got our hands full."