Toppers in Final Four
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – West Liberty was leading by more than 20 points with less than 10 minutes remaining in Thursday’s 110-84 victory against Winona State in an NCAA Division II Elite Eight contest inside Freedom Hall. That’s right about the point in a game where most teams begin calling off the dogs, but there was sophomore C.J. Hester diving for a loose ball along the baseline. Moments later, Mike Lamberti was flying into the lane and went down hard.
“That’s just how West Liberty basketball is played,” junior guard Cedric Harris said. “We play hard for 40 minutes and it starts with (Alex Falk) – he gets into everyone and we feed off his energy.
“I can speak for the underclassmen and say we want to play as hard as we can for our three seniors.”
Falk, along with Chris Morrow and Tim Hausfeld, are looking to win a national championship so they can leave a legacy that can be duplicated, but never bested. In trying to do so, the group is playing with a swagger, maybe even a cockiness that has rarely been seen in a West Liberty program that has had unmatched success the last four seasons, winning an NCAA Division-II record 128 games while losing just eight times.
“I would lean more toward the confident side because we’re all focused,” Morrow said. “We’ve been here before and we know what it takes to be here. That’s all fun and games, but we’re not satisfied.
“We’re trying to win a national championship.”
It certainly wasn’t fun for the Warriors on Thursday. Although it possessed a front line the likes of which the Hilltoppers had never faced, Winona State fell victim to the same ills that have afflicted so many others during this streak.
West Liberty refuses to play at another team’s pace. The tape tells opponents what is coming, yet nobody seems capable of doing anything about it. The Hilltoppers have a way of making teams believe they can play an up-tempo style, and sometimes it works for a short period. In the end though, it’s nothing more than fool’s gold.
“We wanted to go and attack them,”said Winona coach Mike Leaf, no doubt realizing after that is akin to taking a knife to a gun fight. “From a style standpoint I didn’t want us to walk the ball up the floor.
“We didn’t want to change that.”
Perhaps it would have been better if the Warriors had. It has to be easier than changing the result, which was another in a long line of beatdowns by a Hilltoppers team that scores more than 104 a night and wins by an average of 26 points.
West Liberty has built those gaudy statistics brick by brick with a blue-collar attitude you wouldn’t expect from a team that possesses so much skill. Teams that win this many games, by this many points, aren’t supposed to work this hard. It defies conventional wisdom.
“That’s what they say. They also said a small team like us wasn’t supposed to beat a big team like Winona State,” Morrow said. “The first thing in the locker room was ‘on to the next one.’ We celebrated for two minutes, tops. A lot of people look at us like the little kids on the block – the little pests.
“We’re fine with that because if we’re going to get you in our style of play, we’re going to wear you down and impose our will.”
Maybe the Hilltoppers are cocky, and maybe they aren’t. But nobody can argue just how good they are.
“We play very well together and there are not many teams in the country that play as well as a unit, as we can,” Falk said. “There are more-talented teams, definitely, but we play very well together.”
One more victory and they’ll be playing for all the marbles.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org