West Liberty headed to D2 Elite 8 for third straight year
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Liberty is embarking on its own March Madness.
The top-seeded Hilltoppers claimed their third straight NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional men's basketball championship Tuesday night with an 86-63 victory over No. 3 Indiana (Pa.).
West Liberty (33-1), which captured the West Virginia Conference tournament title last month, advanced to next week's Elite Eight in Louisville, Ky. The Hilltoppers will face Winona State (Minn.), the Central Region champion, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 28 at Freedom Hall.
The Hilltoppers have seemingly saved their best for last as they won all three regional games by double digits and outscored their three foes by a combined 78 points.
"I really believe at this point and time we're playing as well as we've played all year,'' said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield. "It's so hard to get to where we're at right now ... just to get in the regionals and win the regional championship and get in the Elite Eight.
"You want to make it your year. There's no guarantee you're going to get back. We felt like [last year] we may never have that chance again and that chance is here and we want to make the most of it.''
It's the third year in a row that West Liberty has moved on to the national tournament. Last year the Hilltoppers lost to Stonehill (Mass.) 91-90 in the opening round and two years ago fell in the semifinals to BYU-Hawaii 110-101.
Tuesday's win also tied West Liberty for the Division II record of 127 victories in four consecutive seasons, matching the mark set by Kentucky Wesleyan (1998-2001).
"From the kids' point of mind they can't feel like they're happy to be there,'' said Crutchfield, whose team finished the season No. 1 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Division II poll.
"I think they're more excited about the possibility of winning a game than just being there. We have three seniors that have been here for all of it. For those guys it's their last chance and they're going to be ready to play."
Hilltoppers senior forward Chris Morrow earned the regional tournament MVP honors while senior guard Alex Falk and junior guard Cedric Harris earned all-tournament accolades.
Falk scored 20 points while Morrow added 18 points, six rebounds and five blocks in the title game. Senior guard Tim Hausfeld and sophomore guard Tim Dyer chipped in 12 points apiece, Harris contributed 11 points and four assists and sophomore guard C.J. Hester had 10 points and seven boards.
After winning the WVC tournament in Charleston in late February, West Liberty had to wait two weeks before the regional began. That played into the Hilltoppers' hands as Harris, the team's second-leading scorer, sat out the conference tourney with a separated shoulder he sustained in the final regular-season game.
"It didn't seem to bother us any,'' Crutchfield said of the extra time off. "I think it gave us a chance to get a couple of guys healthy. It worked to our advantage.''
Winona State won the Division II national tournament in 2006 and 2008 and lost in the final in 2007.
"I know we have an awful tough opponent in Winona State,'' Crutchfield said. "They're big. strong and physical. They're pretty impressive. They look like a big Division I team.
"We've actually fared pretty well against a variety of teams. We're not very big ourselves. We're pretty used to playing against teams bigger than us. We kind of like to think we can play against any type of team.''
Crutchfield said he likes to think West Liberty's run-and-gun style presents its own set of problems for opponents, too.
"It probably works as much to our advantage,'' he said. "We're probably out of the norm because we score a lot of points.''
The Elite Eight semifinals will be March 30 in Louisville, with the national championship game eight days later on Sunday, April 7 in Atlanta during the NCAA tournament's Final Four. The Division II championship game, which will take place in Philips Arena, is sandwiched between the NCAA Tournament semis and national final.
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.