WLU Returns To Elite Eight
WEST LIBERTY – Shaw coach Leo Hill Jr. thought West Liberty’s home-court advantage was the difference in the top-seeded Hilltoppers’ 89-78 victory against the second-seeded Bears in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championship game Tuesday night at West Liberty’s ASRC.
”They got a lot of shots, a lot of bounces to go their way,” Hill said.
Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield agreed.
”I don’t know how many points it was worth, but it’s worth some points,” Crutchfield said. ”We had a thousand, five-hundred people here. When Shaw hit a bucket, it went silent. It’s motivational and inspiring to play here on the home court, and that’s something that our players worked all year long to earn.”
It wasn’t always quiet when Shaw attempted a field goal. The Hilltoppers blocked nine shots – six by 6-foot-5 sophomore Keene Cockburn – against the much bigger Bears, all eliciting thunderous responses. Shaw, which features a pair of 6-foot-8 guys in Karron Johnson and Junius Chaney, had four blocks.
“I wouldn’t have seen that coming,” Crutchfield said. “I think a little bit of it is effort. I think we surprised them a little bit by going up after some of their shots. A couple of Keene’s blocks were momentum-builders. They had a transition bucket where the guy took it at Keene hard. He stepped up above the rim and blocked the shot at 11 feet in the air. I don’t have any idea what that feels like, but I know it had to feel good because the crowd was screaming like crazy.”
Those fans will have the opportunity to continue watching as the Hilltoppers (33-2) will make a second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight. They’ll play East Region champion Stonehill, Mass., which beat Bloomfield, Ind., 75-70, a week from today.
”An unimaginable feeling,” WLU guard Alex Falk said.
The victory was the 74th in the last 76 games for the Hilltoppers at home. They have not lost any of the eight regional games they’ve played at the ASRC.
Trailing by one at halftime, West Liberty grabbed a lead for good with a 10-0 spurt during a minute-and-a-half stretch early in the second half, keyed by 3-pointers by Tim Hausfeld and Falk. In all, WLU hit 11 3-pointers and played from in front for all of the game’s last 15 minutes. The Bears trimmed the deficit to four with 6:22 remaining at 72-68, then watched West Liberty hit 8 of 12 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
”Their spurts are a little different than ours,” Hill said. “Like ours, theirs come off turnovers and good defense, but they shoot the ball first from the 3-point line as opposed to us. We can shoot the ball also, but we try to get to the basket. We just never had our second spurt in the second half. They had two. That was the difference in the game.”
In a matchup of two of the nation’s hottest teams – No. 3 West Liberty had won 29 of its last 30 and No. 7 Shaw had won 23 of 24 – the Hilltoppers kept it going, in part, by taking advantage of two technical fouls and one flagrant foul whistled on the Bears.
”It was a little bit of frustration and emotion,” Hill said. ”It was a game we wanted to win and thought we could win. It might have gotten the best of us a little bit. I might have to take time and look at the film to see if it translated to (their) victory, but it was just heat of the moment.”
Tournament Most Valuable Player Cedric Harris scored 26 points and had eight assists in leading West Liberty.
Falk, an all-region player who was held scoreless in the first half, had 14 in the second half, including a back-breaking 3-pointer with 1:31 left that gave the Hilltoppers a 12-point lead.
Shaw led 43-42 at halftime, mostly by slashing the lane for layups with quick guards Malik Alvin, who had 16 points at that point, and Tony Smith, or getting leakout baskets by catching WLU napping on deep inbounds passes.
”They pull everybody up on their press,” Hill said. “We thought we could get over the top and catch them asleep and we did.”
Alvin, who along with Johnson, was named to the All-Tournament Team, led Shaw with 28 points. Smith added 19 and Chaney banged his way inside for 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Also in double figures for WLU was Hausfeld with 13 points and C.J. Hester with 16 points and 10 rebounds.