West Liberty's Alex Falk drives to the basket past Winona State's Xavier Humphrey.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was hard to ignore the fiery determination in the eyes of West Liberty State's basketball team Thursday afternoon in a Division II national quarterfinal against Winona State.Much of it stemmed from the hurt of a year ago when the Hilltoppers had the plug pulled on their national championship dream in a one-point loss to Stonehill.As far as senior guard Alex Falk was concerned, no way was it going to happen again. He made sure of it inside Freedom Hall, lighting up the scoreboard for 23 points as he helped propel top-ranked West Liberty to a 110-84 win over the unranked Warriors.The win sends the Hilltoppers (34-1) into the semifinals at noon Saturday against No. 3 Metro State (31-2), which advanced with a 78-65 win Thursday over Franklin Pierce.The winner there plays in the national championship game April 7 at Philips Arena in Atlanta.A year ago, the Hilltoppers lost 91-90 in the national quarterfinal. Two years ago, their dream of a title was iced in a loss to BYU-Hawaii in the semifinals."We were extremely motivated and even more serious in practice this week than we normally are," Falk said. "We watched a lot of film on Winona and brought everything we had for 40 minutes. As you can see, it worked."The maddening pace at which West Liberty plays can overwhelm opponents. The Hilltoppers are scoring 103.6 points per game on the season and shoot 52 percent from the field.While Winona State (27-8) hung around, getting as close as 59-53 with 14:43 to go in the game on a free throw by Cameron Taylor, the Hilltoppers had too many options on offense - six players scored in double figures -- and were relentless on defense, forcing 21 turnovers. West Liberty scored 32 points off those miscues.
The Hilltoppers shot 51.4 percent (37 of 72), drilled 11 3-pointers and got 23 points from Cedric Harris. C.J. Hester scored 13 points, Shawn Dyer and Chris Morrow dropped in 12 apiece and Seger Bonifant came off the bench to add 11, nine coming on 3-pointers.Still, while it appeared to be business as usual for West Liberty, coach Jim Crutchfield was a little surprised by the margin of victory."I didn't see a 20-point win coming against a good Winona team," Crutchfield said. "They are big and strong and play with a lot of intensity. For us to end up with 110 points is a shock to me."With 6:57 to go in the opening half, the Hilltoppers trailed 34-32 after Taylor hit a pair of free throws. Crutchfield burned a timeout, and it made a difference as West Liberty outscored the Warriors 18-7 and rolled into halftime with a 50-41 advantage.Harris hit a jumper coming out of that timeout and West Liberty was never really threatened again by Winona State, which shot 48.3 percent (28 of 58) from the floor and got 18 points from Taylor."I don't remember what I said [in the timeout] but it must have been pretty darn good," Crutchfield said. "We had a couple of possessions before that where we got ourselves in trouble offensively by rushing things. Patience isn't our best virtue, but we got our mind in the right place and made a few big baskets to get going again."
An 11-0 run near the midway point of the second half put the Hilltoppers in front 70-53 and they shifted into cruise control the rest of the way, running up and down the floor and wearing down the Warriors.Frustration set in late for Winona State, which was hit with a pair of technical fouls, drawing boos from the faithful behind the Warriors bench."We all believe in each other and we don't care who scores the most points," Harris said. "It's all about winning. We played hard and we are excited about moving on."