RINE: Toppers Beyond Words

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. – You may laugh at the suggestion, but it’s hard to tell who had a more difficult time Sunday – the West Liberty men’s basketball team that won a three-overtime, 86-85, thriller against Indiana, Pa., to move on to the Sweet 16, or myself.

No, I am serious.

Do you know how hard it is to come up with superlatives for a team that will take on host and No. 1 seed East Stroudsburg (30-1) at 7 on Tuesday night in its fifth straight Atlantic Regional title game? A group that has averaged 31 victories a season the last five years?

By all means, if you can come up with a cool way of describing how the Hilltoppers just beat an IUP squad that was 16-0 when scoring 70-plus points this season after, you know, it scored 70-plus points, my email address will be at the end of this column.

Geez.

This is ridiculous.

“It’s insane,” is the way Coach Jim Crutchfield described it following the game.

Then there was this from shot blocker extraordinaire Keene Cockburn, who was asked by a member of the media if it’s tough living up to the lofty expectations. That same reporter, who covers the Crimson Hawks, relayed a story about how readers in his area were convinced the Toppers weren’t as good this year as they have been.

“I think our program is so elite that it is hard to live up to expectations of past years. But it seems like we are doing a good job,” Cockburn said.

You think, kid?

I mean, it’s not just that they win nearly every game – remember, in Crutchfield’s 10 years the Hilltoppers are 269-48 – it’s that they can get it done however you want to throw down.

Just in the two games West Liberty has captured in this Atlantic Regional, it has accomplished its goals in two completely different manners. Against Glenville State, the Hilltoppers scored 88 points and had the Pioneers running around as though their collective hair was on fire. Then Sunday, with Indiana, Pa., coming in at No. 2 in the country in terms of scoring defense, No. 6 in defending the 3-pointer, the Hilltoppers slugged it out in a more deliberately paced game, yet still got the desired result.

“That is the beauty of this team, is that we’re so versatile,” point guard Cedric Harris said. “It’s not even just our guards.

“I feel like our big men can do the same thing – they can step out and hit 3s and they can drive as well.”

Hey, it’s going to take a special effort to beat this club, one that I don’t think the No. 2-ranked Warriors have in them. Not that it cannot be done, mind you, because history shows that to be untrue.

But if you’re going to bet against this group of Hilltoppers, and a lot have, going so far as to say the only reason they are three-time regional champs is because they didn’t have to leave home to collect the hardware, then you better be rich or not put down a whole lot of money.

West Liberty won’t admit it outwardly – perhaps that will come after the season – but its players are carrying a bit of a quiet swagger as they attend to business.

As far as I can tell, these guys appear to be relishing the thought of cutting down the nets in the No. 1 seed’s gym. And when they do just that Tuesday night, I hope by then my inbox is filled with some colorful suggestions. Because, folks, I am all out.

Shawn Rine can be reached via email at srine@theintelligencer.net