EVANSVILLE, Ind. The West Liberty men's basketball team faces a tall task tonight, both literally and figuratively. Standing between the Hilltoppers (30-3) and a berth in the NCAA Division II national championship game is an ultra-talented South Carolina-Aiken (33-3) club that features a total of 10 seniors and seven D-I transfers from as many different schools. Tipoff is set for 9:30 p.m. at the Ford Center.
"They're big and they are strong," West Liberty coach Jim Crutcfield said of the Pacers, who have won 15 in a row including their four tournament games by an average of 18 points. "They are a little intimidating when they walk on the court and we're not.
"I think this might be the most talented team we've ever played against.''
WEST LIBERTY PHOTO
Cedric Harris (32) and West Liberty play tonight for a spot in the D-II national title game.
The game looks, at least on paper, as though it has the makings of a classic that will be determined by whose strength wins out. The Hilltoppers have made (410) and attempted (1,015) more 3-pointers than any team in the country, while SC-Aiken leads all 305 Division-II schools in 3-point field goal defense, allowing a success rate of 24 percent.
That has a lot to do with shot-blocking king Alvin Brown, who tops the NCAA charts with nearly five per game. That allows the team's guards to stay at home on the perimeter and contest nearly every shot.
"We've seen teams that shoot that many 3s, but not that make as many as West Liberty does," Pacers point guard DeVontae Wright said. "We've got some pretty good teams in our conference so we've been on the road and won some pretty tough games when the odds were against us.
"West Liberty is a whole different team as far as how deep and aggressive they are. It will be a little bit different from what we've seen this year."
Crutchfield said it is easy to get caught up in the deserved hype that surrounds the 6-foot-10 Brown in the middle, but believes Aiken's guards are what really make it go.
"They have three great guards (Wright, Ronald Zimmerman and Paul Larsen) who are very strong, very mature and are all D-I transfers that can all shoot the ball from the 3-point line," he said. "That's where you have to focus.
"It's easy to look at the 6-10 guy and say that's the makeup of their team, and you're fooled by that."
The Pacers are led by Zimmerman, who averages 16.8 points a night and is No. 2 nationally in 3-pointers made (141) and No. 8 in percentage (.384). Wright checks in at 15.3 and Larsen nets 12.3 a night. Rouding out the starting lineup are Jesse Seilern (9.8 ppg.) and Brown (6.7 ppg.).
The key very well could be West Liberty's success rate at getting Brown away from the basket on the defensive end. For that to happen, Hilltoppers big men C.J. Hester (14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds) and Keene Cockburn (11.9 ppg., 6.8 rpg., and 95 blocks) will have to hit some early outside shots.
"He affects your game offensively because if you get near their basket and he's near their basket, he's either going to block it or change your shot," Crutchfield said. "If you can get him away from the basket it does open things up for other people to maybe get dribble penetration."
The Hilltoppers were down by as many as 11 points in the first half of Wednesday night's 85-75 victory against Drury in the Elite 8. Their ability to almost effortlessly climb out of that hole impressied the Aiken players, especially Wright.
"Even with Drury being the national champion last year, they didn't let that affect them," Wright said. "You can see how resilient they are. They have good leaders and pretty good guards.
"They came back and put it on Drury."
Cedric Harris leads the Toppers at 17.8 points a contest and is followed closely by Hester, who is three rebounds shy of 900 for his career, and Shawn Dyer (14.3ppg.). Devin Hoehn adds 11.9 points while Bubby Goodwin is at and even 11 and Seger Bonifant scores 10.7 and is coming off a 7-for-7 showing (6 of 6 on 3s) for a team-high 20 points against Drury.
"They have a good amount of teamwork going on and that always makes for a formidable opponent," Brown said. "We know we have our hands full tonight.''
The winner will meet the Metro State-Central Missouri survivor in Saturday's 3 p.m. national championship game.
Tonight's game is being carried on CBS College Sports.