EVANSVILLE, Ind. - His demeanor is quiet and reserved, but Keene Cockburn is the owner of one exceptionally loud game. The sound of him swatting a basketball out of the air has been heard more times this season (95) than any other in the history of West Liberty basketball.
"We wouldn't be where we are without Keene Cockburn," Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield said following his team's 85-75 victory Wednesday night against Drury in an NCAA Division II national quarterfinal at the Ford Center. "To get to this point he has been incredibly valuable.''
Just don't tell Cockburn himself that. He might well believe it is true, but he certainly doesn't want to talk about that - or much of anything, really. He stuck around in the victorious locker room long enough to change and grab a bite to eat and a drink, and when I finally caught up to him the response was typical.
"I don't care for these (interviews) that much," he said with a smile.
The way Cockburn figures it, the only talking that needs to be done takes place in 40-minute intervals on the court.
"Defense is more my role on this team,'' the 6-foot-5 senior from North Ridgeville, Ohio, said. "I try to really focus on my defense and my shot blocking.''
Crutchfield has taken notice and, really, so has everyone else.
"He has become our defensive stopper inside and he not only blocks shots, he changes shots,'' the coach said. "He is the guy that is going to have to step up against the big men (of USC-Aiken).''
Taking Down the Champ
Now that it's in the past, the Hilltoppers conceded knocking out the defending national champion, as they did with Drury, carried a little extra special significance in a five-year rrun that has been filled with notable victories.
"Yeah. That was sweet because we were the underdog," Cockburn said.
Crutchfield was more technical.
"Everybody knows who Drury is - they are the national champions,'' he said. "The stepped out and got to play Duke this year on national TV. Beating Drury is a nice feather in your hat, I would say.
"I told everyone I was anxious to see how we matched up against that.''
The Hilltoppers have been here - the Final Four - before. In fact, this is the third time in five years they have accomplished the feat.
For this team's three seniors, Cedric Harris, Cockburn and Jeff Yunetz, this is the final chance to bring home that elusive crown.
"We've been here before and we failed each time to win a national championship," Harris said. "Like Coach has said, other teams have been here from West Liberty, but we're still alive.
"It's a surreal feeling right now."
Cockburn wants that feeling to last a lifetime.
"We're trying to go out winning, not as losers," he said. "Last year we had so many opportunites.
"We want to make this one special."
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org