SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Everyone wants to talk about the unreal scoring average and the 3-pointers that seem to come in bunches for the No. 1 West Liberty State men’s basketball team.
Granted, it’s darn near impossible to ignore those numbers, numbers such as the 111.6 points per outing and the 473 made treys on more than 1,000 attempts.
But there is no question that the Hilltoppers (33-0) can get after it defensively as well, and their effort on that end of the floor helped set the stage for a 113-95 win against unranked Anderson (S.C.) in a national quarterfinal here at the MassMutual Center Wednesday night.
West Liberty overcame an 11-0 deficit in the first five minutes of play by forcing turnovers and converting them into easy baskets on the other end, be it a layup or a 3-pointer,
By halftime, the Hilltoppers were ahead 52-47 and they ended up kicking it into cruise control the rest of the way as they scored 37 points off of 29 miscues.
Senior guard Corey Pelle is one of the better defenders on the team. He had 97 steals coming into the game and said nerves got the best of the team early before it finally settled down and turned the momentum in its favor.
“We were real nervous. I was actually worried because we haven’t been down that often,” Pelle said. “We got back to playing basketball the way we know how, not only with our scoring but by getting turnovers and taking advantage of those mistakes.”
Pelle and Alex Falk each tallied four steals, accounting for nearly half of the 17 the Hilltoppers tallied in the win. Sure, they still gave up 95 points, which is good enough to win most games, but they frustrated the Trojans (21-12) with their pressure when it mattered most.
“We play our best defense on the run,” West Liberty head coach Jim Crutchfield said. “We defended well in transition and we were able to make plays to turn things around in our favor. I thought we had trouble with our half court defense tonight and that is something we will need to improve on if we are going to win a championship.
West Liberty is accustomed to running teams right out of the gym, which tends to happen when you win games by an average of 31.3 points per outing.
The thing is, Anderson wasn’t going to go down without a fight. It had to beat national power Augusta State 75-73 in overtime to get to the Elite Eight and it wasn’t going to back down from playing a team that features the highest scoring offense in the country.
Anderson led 24-10 with 12 minutes to play after a layup by Kevis Cornwell, but it was only a matter of time before the Hilltoppers got itself back on track.
When Pelle hit a jumper with 3:48 to go in the half, the score was tied at 37-37. Jordan Fortney buried a trey moments later and the Hilltoppers never trailed again.
Pelle finished the game with 21 points while Chris Morrow set the tone with his 25-point performance.
Falk and John Wolosinczuk dropped in 20 points apiece for the Hilltoppers, shot 56.5 percent from the field and made 16 treys, the second most in Elite Eight history.
“Coach told us that we would find a way to come back,” Pelle said. “We all looked at each other and believed it. Our first half wasn’t that great but we did a much better job of playing our way in the second half.”
Anderson, though, has no reason to hang its head. The 95 points it scored would have won the first two games played here today and there was no doubt that they came to town ready to play.
Denzail Jones, who is only a freshman, pumped in 20 points. Trey Britton scored 13 while Cornwell and Oskars Ernsteins dropped in 12 points apiece. Nick Trull added 10 points and the Trojans shot 46.6 percent from the field.
Anderson came into this tournament as a seventh seed and stunned everyone by winning its regional tournament. But its March magic ran out against the Hilltoppers, who are one step closer to becoming only the fifth unbeaten national champion in D-II history.
“If we had lost by one point, in triple overtime or by 50, it still would hurt the same way,” Anderson head coach Jason Taylor said. “I am extremely proud of my team. They take a lot of pride in what they do and they played hard. This was a great experience and I wish we could have kept on playing.”
West Liberty will keep playing, however, and if you had told Pelle that he would be in the Final Four in his senior season, he would laughed.
“When I came to West Liberty, I didn’t think something like this was possible,” Pelle said. “I’m a senior and I do not want to go home. I want to keep going and win the last game of my career.”