Hilltoppers Fall In Conference Finals
By SHAWN RINE
CHARLESTON – There is no five-peat for the West Liberty men’s basketball team, and for the first time it won’t be playing host to the Atlantic Regional during that span. The Hilltoppers can thank Xavier Humphrey and the University of Charleston for both.
Humphrey knocked down a 3-pointer from the right wing with 16 seconds left Sunday and Shawn Dyer’s answer was off the mark on the other end, as the Golden Eagles (21-8) earned a 63-60 upset of the Hilltoppers (26-3) in the inaugural Mountain East Conference men’s basketball championship at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
West Liberty shot 37 percent from the field and the 60 points are the fewest in a game during Jim Crutchfield’s 10 seasons – or 315 games-guiding the program. Charleston took care of the basketball, turning it over six times and holding a sizeable, 18-5 advantage in points off turnovers.
All of this adds up to a trip to Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champion East Stroudsburg, which is a little more than six-hour drive, for the Atlantic Regional later this week.
“It’s not that bad. We’re in and we can win,” Crutchfield said of the travel. “We’re a good enough team that we can win wherever it is.
“The good thing about it is we get a chance to play again, and maybe feel good about ourselves again.”
The Golden Eagles are feeling great this morning. They never let West Liberty get to the pace it likes to play at and thus avenged a pair of regular-season losses.
“If I am being honest there were some guys who said hypothetically, if Fairmont (had beaten WLU), it would have been a war between us, because I think Fairmont is so talented,” said UC coach Dwaine Osborne, who shared MEC Coach of the Year honors with Crutchfield. “But a lot of people would have said ‘well, you got fortunate to avoid West Lib’ and so forth.
“We just felt like if we were going to win the thing, we wanted to be in a situation where nobody could use anything against us.”
With the game tied 60-60, West Liberty had a chance to take the lead when Dyer had a step on his man driving to the basket, but the ball slipped from his hands and out of bounds. On the other end, Humphrey, who was 3 of 12 overall and 1 of 8 from 3 to that point, found himself wide open off a screen and calmly sank the winning basket.
“At first I was surprised I was so open, but I had been missing shots left and right all night,” Humphrey said. “But my teammates still had confidence in me and when I let it go I just said ‘I have to make this last one.'”
“Denzel (Douglas) came off a slip screen and flipped it back to me.”
That screen was a point of contention for Crutchfield.
“Obviously our guy must have flopped on a screen there, because he went flying out of bounds,” Crutchfield said sarcastically. “I guess he was acting because he got free on a wide-open 3.
“You tell me.”
Rather than call a timeout, the Hilltoppers got the ball down the floor and into the hands of Dyer, who pump faked before launching a 3 that was just off the mark. The ball bounced out to Cedric Harris whose 3-point attempt was after the buzzer, and well short regardless.
“We should have already known what we were doing, but we didn’t and that’s my fault,” Crutchfield said. “When the ball went in a couple of their players were jumping up and down and cheering and we didn’t know what to do.
“During that confusion, if we had known what we were doing, they hadn’t set their defense up. I had a player walking around and obviously I didn’t explain well enough to our players what to do in that situation.”
West Liberty, which hadn’t trailed in the tournament prior to Sunday, built the game’s biggest lead (29-20) on a Harris basket but the Eagles cut it to 32-25 at the half.
Fred Simpson, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player who had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, put Charleston in a second-half lead (39-37) when he drilled a 3-pointer. The game went back-and-forth with the biggest lead being five (50-45) for West Liberty and four (58-54) for the Eagles.
However, Dyer scored to cut it to two and C.J. Hester, who had 14 points and nine rebounds to make the all-tournament team, scored on a putback to tie it, setting up a frantic final few minutes.
“We talked about withstanding their runs,” Osborne said. “We were trying to be conscious of their runs and if they got to six or seven, call timeouts.
“We tried to make sure to hang around until the end to see what happens.”
Douglas had 16 points for the Golden Eagles and Humphrey had 14 points and seven rebounds, and Aleks Kesic contributed 10 points and six rebounds.
For the Hilltoppers, Harris, who along with Dyer joined Hester on the all-tournament team, had nine points, five assists and four rebounds. Dyer had 14 points and Keene Cockburn added seven points, seven rebounds and a pair of blocks to give him 77 this season, which is a school record.
“We have to put this behind us. It’s obviously what we are thinking about right now, but (today) is a new day,” Hester said. “We’ve got practice (today) and we have to get refocused and find out who we play and where we play.”