Toppers punch ticket to Final Four

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Sometimes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. That was certainly the case Thursday for Winona State in its NCAA Division II national quarterfinal against West Liberty at Freedom Hall.

The top-ranked Hilltoppers (34-1) did what they always seem to, breaking open a close game by imposing their will on the way to a 110-84 victory against the Warriors (27-8). West Liberty, which set a Division-II record with its 128th victory against eight defeats during a four-year span and is making its second Final Four appearance in three seasons, will meet Metro State at noon on Saturday for the right to play for a national championship April 7 in Atlanta.

“They’ve got a great combination of things out there and I am not going to get into the Xs and Os, but they really play well together,” Winona State coach Mike Leaf said of West Liberty. “I hope they win it all. I haven’t seen all the teams, but they certainly have the capability.

“They have it in all facets. They’ve got it all covered.”

The Warriors hung around for the better part of the first half before the Hilltoppers went on one of their patented runs, opening up a 50-41 lead at halftime. But many of the considerably bigger, stronger Warriors were showing signs of fatigue, which is similar to a shark smelling blood in the water when it concerns West Liberty.

“It sounds kind of cocky, but in the first half we could see a lot of guys bent over tugging on their jerseys and yelling at their teammates,” WLU senior center Chris Morrow said. “We couldn’t break them quite as much as we wanted to in the first half.

“We knew it was a matter of time before they started throwing the ball away and missing shots.”

Sure enough, the Warriors did.

After hitting nearly 60 percent of its shots in the first half, Winona mustered a 12 of 31 performance after halftime. Clayton Vette, the Warriors’ 6-foot-9 All-American transfer from Iowa State, didn’t get his first touch after halftime until almost seven minutes had elapsed, and as a result scored only two of his 14 points in the final 20 minutes.

“They had a smaller guy guarding me the second half and he was trying to get around me,” Vette said. “The way that they play doesn’t really suit my game.

“You get a little bit antsy and want to go, go, go.”

The Hilltoppers, who won their 20th in a row, certainly did behind a defense that forced 21 turnovers, which turned into 32 points. Cedric Harris (five assists) and Alex Falk, who broke Corey Pelle’s single-season record for steals in the game, paced a 60-point, second-half explosion and tied for game-high scoring honors with 23 apiece.

Back-to-back 3-pointers from Morrow, who finished as one of six West Liberty players in double figures with 12, and Shawn Dyer, who also netted 12, ignited a 19-4 Hilltoppers run that put the game out of reach.

“I thought we were persistent, if nothing else,” WLU coach Jim Crutchfield said. “Obviously I didn’t see a 20-point win coming because Winona is a great team.

“I don’t think you can play much better than that.”

The only question remaining was whether West Liberty, the highest-scoring team in the nation at nearly 104 points a game, would again crack the century mark. It was answered when freshman Seger Bonifant (11 points) hit the last of his trio of 3-pointers to put the Toppers ahead 101-72.

C.J. Hester added 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds for West Liberty. All but two of the 12 Hilltoppers to play scored.

Cameron Taylor, who found early foul trouble, recovered to lead the Warriors with 18 points. Grant Johnson netted 13 and Kellen Taylor contributed 10.

“We were extremely motivated and I think we were more serious than we usually are because we knew what we needed to accomplish” Falk said.

“We watched a lot of games on Winona State and we knew they were a great team. We knew we had to bring everything we had for 40 minutes, and that held true.

“If we had one lapse they were coming back.”