WLU advances to title game

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – For the first time in school history, the West Liberty men’s basketball team has earned the right to play for an NCAA Division II national championship. The Hilltoppers (31-3) used 30 points from Shawn Dyer and a suffocating defense that led to South Carolina-Aiken shooting 40 percent from the floor, to take an 86-83, Final Four win Thursday at the Ford Center.

West Liberty will meet Central Missouri at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Mules knocked off defending runner-up Drury in the night’s opening game.

“It’s great to be in uncharted waters here in the championship game,” an obviously relieved West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said. “This was kind of the way we like to play. We had our ups and downs, but we like to play at that kind of frantic pace.

“A lot of loose balls and a lot of scrambling and I think we’re at our best when we are doing that.”

Somehow, against a much bigger and far more athletic Pacers (32-4) team, the Hilltoppers managed to pull one out down the stretch, despite those signficant disadvantages.

“We came into this game wanting to limit their 3-pointers and they were 4-for-18 which is 22 percent,” USC-Aiken coach Vince Alexander said. “We wanted to keep them off the glass and they had eight offensive rebounds.

“We did what we needed to do. The difference was we didn’t make enough shots. We missed some layups and free throws, and those are big in a game like this.”

West Liberty, too, had success in taking away the opponent’s strength. The Pacers’ 6-foot-10, shot-blocking machine Alvin Brown, was taken out of the game by the Toppers’ ability to stretch the defense. He finished with six points and just one blocked shot.

Still though, the goal wasn’t achieved until the final possession, when a USC-Aiken 3-pointer was off the mark at the buzzer. The Toppers’ defense, as it was all night, didn’t provide a good look on that play.

“I gave them the freedom of fouling, but I just don’t have the nerve to say ‘go foul,'” Crutchfield said. “People ask why you don’t foul when you’re up three?

“I’m always afraid – we foul them with 10 seconds and they make them and we’re up one, then we don’t have any timeouts and can’t get the ball in.

“Or, we start to foul them and all of a sudden he goes up for 3 and gets three shots.

“But for us to win at this level, we’ve got to play great defense.”

And get performances like this one from Dyer, a starter on every other team in the country. He sliced and diced his way to a 9-for-17 effort from the field and 11-for-15 at the line.

West Liberty led 85-80 with 17 seconds remaining, but Ronald Zimmerman, the leading 3-point shooter in the nation in terms of makes and attempts, hit one of just three for him in the game (in eight tries) to pull the Pacers within three.

However, he fouled out moments later and Aiken’s best option at the end was relegated to the bench.

“Words can’t describe how I feel right now, to be honest,” said Toppers point guard Cedric Harris, who finished with 16 points and a game-high five assists.

“To lose three big seniors from last year and overcoming all kinds of adversity being in this position is unreal.”