Toppers Stifle Bobcats

WEST LIBERTY – The No. 6-ranked West Liberty men held West Virginia Wesleyan to 20 first-half points Thursday night en route to a 77-61 victory at a jam-packed ASRC.

The Bobcats (17-10 overall, 12-7 Mountain East), who entered the game tied for second place in the confernce, ran the shot clock down to single digits on nearly every possession in an attempt to corral the nation’s highest-scoring team but Coach Jim Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers (22-2, 18-1) were unfazed.

Locking down on the defensive end, West Liberty, which clinched the MEC championship a week ago, held the Bobcats to two field goals in the first 15 minutes and never trailed en route to its 150th victory in the last five seasons.

“Our goal isn’t to score 100 points every night,” Crutchfield said. “It’s to score more points than our opponent and defense is a big part of that.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter 6-for-21 from behind the 3-point arc) but we had a double-digit lead for just about the entire last 30 minutes and beat a very good basketball team by 16 points.”

Wesleyan was able to keep things close at the foul line in the early going and trailed 10-8 after a pair of T.J. Thompson free throws with 13:01 on the clock.

The Hilltoppers reeled off a 16-1 surge during the next eight minutes with a Cedric Harris jumper pushing the lead to 26-9 at the 5:21 mark. West Liberty held the Bobcats to 0-for-8 shooting from the floor and forced five turnovers during the decisive run.

The Black and Gold settled for a 33-20 halftime lead and led by as many as 19 points at several junctures during the second half.

Thompson hit three consecutive 3-pointers to spark the Bobcats’ only second-half challenge, trimming the deficit to 55-46 with 8:57 remaining, but West Liberty scored on its next three possessions to go up 61-46 as the clock ticked past the seven-minute mark and Wesleyan never threatened again.

Harris led all scorers with a season-high 29 points. The senior standout also tied a career-high with six steals and handed out a team-high four assists.

“Cedric had a really good all-around game,” Crutchfield said. “He used his strength to his advantage against their smaller guards but the thing that really impressed me was his defense.

“Thompson is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league but when he hit those three 3-pointers in the second half, Cedric spoke up in the huddle and asked if he could switch over to guard Thompson. He did a really good job on him the rest of the night.”

Keene Cockburn backed Harris with 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds and Seger Bonifant added nine points off the bench.

Thompson’s 20 points paced the Bobcats, who also got 18 points from Brett Ervin on 6-for-10 shooting from the 3-point arc.

West Liberty, ranked No. 1 in the Atlantic Region, returns to action Saturday afternoon with a 4 p.m. game at Glenville State. The Pioneers were seventh in this week’s Atlantic Region rankings.

“With five teams from our league in the top eight of the region, we’re going to see ranked teams and high-quality opponents every time we step on the court the rest of the way,” Crutchfield said, “and we love it. Those are the kind of games our guys came here to play in.”