EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. - Prior to tipping off the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament, West Liberty junior C.J. Hester compared the host site, Koehler Fieldhouse, to a slimmed-down version of Syracuse's Carrier Dome. With a standing-room-only crowd at full roar Tuesday night with a championship at stake, the Hilltoppers dug deep and popped that balloon, freeing the dreams and hopes of East Stroudsburg's No. 2-ranked men's basketball team.
Tournament Most Valuable Player Cedric Harris scored a game-high 21 points while Hester (16 points, 17 rebounds) and Keene Cockburn (17 points, 12 rebounds) were huge with double-doubles as No. 7 West Liberty (29-3) captured an unprecedented fourth straight regional crown, 89-82, and heads back to the Elite 8. The Hilltoppers will face defending national champion Drury, which ousted Michigan Tech, a week from today at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., at 6 p.m.
"This shows that we have a lot of character,'' said Hester, who joined Harris on the all-tournament team. "Coach is always preaching to keep playing hard and (at halftime) he said he said we have 20 more minutes and then we get a nice break.
"That's what we did."
West Liberty, which became the first school playing on the road to win an Atlantic Regional title - home teams were 19-0 coming in - since its inception in 2008-2009, had an answer for everything the Warriors (30-2) threw at it. After leading nearly the entire first half, the Hilltoppers fell behind 37-31 on a Rasheed Moore 3-pointer, but East Stroudsburg's final lead didn't last long.
Hester, Harris and Cockburn hit consecutive 3s and Bubby Goodwin scored just before the buzzer for the third time in as many regional games, as WLU closed the first half on a 12-2 run to go back in front for good, 44-39, at the break.
Coach Jim Crutchfield though, was not without worry. ESU held a 25-21 rebounding advantage, but the Toppers managed to offset that with 53-percent shooting.
"It was more a point of emphasis about keeping them off the boards," Crutchfield said. "They had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half.
"They're not really big, but they are strong, quick and aggressive to the boards."
Shawn Dyer, who had 16 points and four rebounds, drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to give West Liberty its biggest lead - 72-59 - but the Warriors had one final push in them.
Whis Grant, who like Harris was an all-region first-teamer this season, finally got going and his two free throws with a little more than four minutes remaining cut it to 79-75.
"Whis Grant is an unbelievable player," Harris said. "We knew he was going to get going in the second half (after being held held to three points in the first) because he was going to start shooting more.
Grant hit two more free throws to get it back to 82-79, but redshirt freshman Devin Hoehn scored two of his seven and Dyer got one to roll around the rim and in for an 86-79 lead.
Despite Harris fouling out, there was no panic on the West Liberty sideline.
"He had four fouls and I switched him off on Whis Grant. The fans are thinking 'why would you do that?,' '' Crutchfield said. "Well Grant is their best guy and (Harris) is our best defender. Whis Grant needed to be stopped and I figured Ced was the man to do it.
"He got a tough call but after that was over, I wasn't saying 'Oh my God, what are we going to do without Ced?' Our players weren't saying that either."
Lamont Tillery hit for three of his 10 with 35.7 left and after the teams traded misses, Hester was fouled and stepped to the line. The left-handed junior calmly sank both ends of a 1-and-1 to seal the deal with 11.1 remaining.
"This will never get old," Crutchfield said. "To win one game alone in a regional setting is very hard to do.
"We've won 12 regional games in a row and we had to fight like crazy for nearly every one.
"So to win 12 in a row at regional play, it's almost mind-boggling to me."
East Stroudsburg, the No. 1 seed, began trying to emulate West Liberty's high-powered attack five years ago, which made the final a matchup of near mirror-image teams. Warriors coach Jeff Wilson saw one very big difference.
"To be honest, they were better than us in transition, which doesn't happen very often," he said. "We missed some shots that we normally make and it was (still) a three-possession game.
"West Liberty, give them a lot of credit, they are a class program and do a great job. They just made a couple more plays than we did."
Grant finished with a team-high 19 points for East Stroudsburg, which was held to 34-percent shooting, the result of another terrific defensive performance by the Hilltoppers, the No. 2 seed. Moore added 17 and eight rebounds while Zechariah Runkle checked in with nine points and 12 rebounds.
"It's definitely a team win," Hester said. "In a game like this there are so many possessions that everyone was getting tired.
"We utilized our bench (42 points) very well and it definitely showed."