West Liberty's Alex Falk goes to the basket against Wheeling Jesuit's Joe Prati.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anybody in Division II knows no lead is safe against West Liberty. But sometimes no lead seems safe for the Hilltoppers.
They demonstrated that Saturday night in the second semifinal of the West Virginia Conference men's tournament, seeing a 25-point lead melt to eight late in the contest.
Still, the nationally top-ranked Hilltoppers slammed the door on the Cardinals, scoring the last 11 points to take away a 92-73 victory.
The win puts them in the championship at 3:30 p.m. today, a Root Sports-televised battle against Fairmont State. It also cements, if there is any doubt, West Liberty's place as host of the NCAA Division II tournament's Atlantic Region.
Wheeling Jesuit (19-10) still has a chance at an at-large bid, despite being out of the region's top 10. But there have been key losses in the region this week and the Cardinals went 14-3 in the home stretch, losing all three times to the Hilltoppers (29-1).
This much is certain: Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield is happy to have his neighboring rivals out of his hair.
"Sometimes it's not the easier position to be in, against a good team, playing when you're ahead," said Crutchfield. "We played well in the first half, had a 20-point lead. We got a little too conservative as everybody probably saw, slowed down the offense a little bit.
"But you're also treading that thin line of 'If we start shooting the ball quickly and missing shots,' we put them back into the game ourselves. We didn't want to do that."
While the Hilltoppers' second half was up and down, they put on a clinic in the first half en route to a 54-33 lead. They shot 60 percent from all distances and split their 20 3-point attempts, including four by pint-sized bomber Tim Hausfeld.
The Hilltoppers had 17 assists on 21 baskets and held the Cardinals to three offensive rebounds. The latter stat didn't help a Wheeling team that shot just 43.3 percent.
Hausfield, who seemingly throws his entire 5-foot-6 frame into his outrageously deep 3-pointers, helped crack open the Cardinals' zone. With 16 3s for the game, the Hilltoppers were able to exploit those cracks - like they almost always do.
Alex Falk led the Hilltoppers with 25 points, with Shawn Dyer adding 19 with eight assists, Hausfeld 14 and C.J. Hester 14 with 12 rebounds. Justin Fritts led Wheeling with 16 points, with Ben Siefert scoring 14, Joe Prati 13 and Eric Siefert 11.
It didn't help the Cardinals, ultimately, that Ben Siefert fouled out with 5:52 left. His teammates did cut a 77-62 lead to 81-73 before going scoreless in the final 2:39.
"It's a team game, but when Ben comes out we change a little bit who we are," said Wheeling coach Danny Sancomb. "He's so steady, just calm out there. With our team this year being so young, his leadership skills [have been key]. Ben's never been a vocal player, but he changed that role a little bit this year.
"But he's so calm, and he's just such an intelligent player."
This afternoon, the Hilltoppers face a Fairmont team that won an overtime thriller in the first semifinal Saturday. With those eight television timeouts thrown in, it stands to be a tough one - West Liberty swept the season series, but won twice by a combined nine points.
"They're obviously extremely talented," Crutchfield said. "Isaac Thornton and Malik Stith had a big game against us a couple of weeks ago. We need to be on a mission to shut those two guys down."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com or at twitter.com/dougsmock.