Hilltoppers Advance to National Championship Game

Photo: West Liberty University

Hilltoppers Advance to National Championship Game

West Liberty Holds Off Black Hills State, 87-82, in Hard-Fought Semifinal

   EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Battered, bloodied but unbowed, No. 5 West Liberty punched its ticket to Saturday’s NCAA D2 National Championship Game here Thursday by hanging on for a gritty, 87-82, victory over No. 21 Black Hills State (S.D.) in a physical Elite Eight semifinal at the Ford Center.

   It was the 18th straight win for Coach Ben Howlett’s Hilltoppers (33-3), who will take on unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Nova Southeastern, Fla. (35-0) in Saturday’s 3 p.m. (EDT) title tilt. Led by former WLU head man Jim Crutchfield, the Sharks defeated No. 6 CSU-San Bernardino, 94-87, in Thursday’s other semifinal.

   “I’m happy for Coach Crutchfield and I’m sure he’s happy for us,” Howlett said, “but Saturday’s game isn’t about him and I; it’s about West Liberty and Nova Southeastern. We both came here with one goal in mind – to win a national championship for our school, our fans and our players. That’s the only thing that matters on Saturday.

   “I’m proud of the way our guys battled through adversity today. They never panicked even when things weren’t going our way and as a result, we have a chance to play for a national championship on Saturday. We’ll let them enjoy this win tonight and start working on Nova Southeastern tomorrow.”

   West Liberty jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the game’s first two minutes and spent the rest of the opening half slowly padding that margin as the Yellow Jackets (29-6), who shot over 50 percent from the floor during the season, struggled to find the range against WLU’s aggressive up-tempo defense.

   A driving layup by Malik McKinney just ahead of the horn sent the Hilltoppers jogging off into the halftime locker room with a commanding 47-31 lead.

   “We knew the game wasn’t over,” senior guard Steve Cannady said. “They’re a really good basketball team. We expected them to make a run at us in the second half and they did. We have a pretty good group of guys, though. I’m really proud of the way they stayed composed and weathered the storm.”

   West Liberty seemed to have things under control when play resumed, pushing the lead out to 18 points on multiple occasions as time slowly ticked away on the Black Hills State season.

   The Hilltoppers led, 65-47, following a Ben Sarson layup off a feed from Cannady but the seeds of a Yellow Jacket comeback were being quietly planted in the scorebook as fouls began to mount on the West Liberty big men.

   Joel Scott, Black Hills State’s 6-8 national player of the year, was responsible for most of that. He scored 23 of his game-high 30 points in the second half with many of them coming at the charity stripe as 11 of WLU’s 23 personal fouls on the afternoon were committed against Scott.

   The Hilltoppers’ seemingly-comfortable 18-point lead began melting away as 6-8 Chaz Hinds and the 6-6 Sarson each picked up their fifth personal fouls coming down the stretch.

   Compounding the problem in the paint for West Liberty was a collision that forced All-American Bryce Butler out of the game with a bloody nose with just under six minutes to play.

   “Having Bryce on the floor can solve a lot of problems for us,” Howlett said. “He’s so smart and he can defend in the paint and on the perimeter. I knew if there was any way possible, Bryce wouldn’t let a bloody nose hold him out. He’s such a competitor, he’d probably cut it off before he let that happen.”

   As the WLU training staff trying to stop the bleeding, Scott fueled one last push for the Yellow Jackets. A pair of free throws made it a two-possession game, 80-74, with just under three minutes to play but, after the teams traded misses, Malik McKinney curled his way down the lane for a huge basket that put the Hilltoppers up, 82-74, with 1:39 to go.

   After Black Hills’ P.J. Hayes buried a 3-pointer to make it 82-77, the Yellow Jackets called a timeout with 1:02 remaining and Butler – with a bloody wad of gauze protruding from one nostril – made his way back onto the court.

   West Liberty ran nearly the full 30 seconds off the shot clock before Butler drew a foul going to the hoop. He made 1-of-2 from the line for an 83-77 Hilltopper lead and McKinney tacked on two more free throws following a Yellow Jacket miss to put the game out of reach, 85-77, with just 16 seconds to play.

   Butler and McKinney finished with 16 points each to led West Liberty while Hinds added 14 big points off the bench and Cannady finished with 13 lightings.

   Scott finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds – both game-highs. Hayes added 17, Jaeton Hackley chipped in with 11 and Sindou Cisse just missed a double-double with 10 points and 9 rebounds.


   X Saturday’s championship game pits the two teams with the longest winning streaks in the country. West Liberty has won 18 straight since a Jan. 25 loss at Wheeling. Nova Southeastern has won 35 straight, dating back to a loss to Black Hills State in last year’s Elite Eight quarterfinals

   X Only three teams ranked first or second nationally in scoring have advanced to the NCAA D2 national championship game since 2000. All three – Kentucky Wesleyan (2002), West Liberty (2014) and Lincoln Memorial (2016) – lost in the final. That streak will end on Saturday as Nova Southeastern and the Hilltoppers rank 1-2 nationally in scoring this season

   X Playing in its 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament, West Liberty is 34-13 in NCAA postseason play. The Hilltoppers have advanced to 10 of the last 13 Sweet 16s, 7 of the last 13 Elite Eights, five of the last 13 national semifinals and will be making their second national championship game appearance on Saturday.

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