West Liberty rushes by Indiana (Pa.)
A 15-0 run pushes Hilltoppers to their 48th consecutive home win
WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – After spending the last four seasons putting together a 48-game home winning streak, West Liberty’s four senior starters weren’t about to let it come to an end in their final game on the home boards.
Coach Jim Crutchfield’s unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers overcame their first halftime deficit of the season to beat No. 21 Indiana (Pa.) 89-86 in a thrilling NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championship game before an overflow crowd at the ASRC.
“It’s just been so much fun playing together we don’t want to leave,” said Corey Pelle, who added the title of Regional Tournament MVP to his WVIAC and Atlantic Region Player of the Year honors from the regular season. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win so we can keep on playing.”
The Hilltoppers (32-0) will keep on playing at the Elite Eight NCAA Division II national championship tournament in Springfield, Mass. West Liberty will make its first-ever Elite Eight appearance on March 23 when the Hilltoppers take on unranked Anderson (21-11), which notched a 75-73 overtime upset of No. 3-ranked Augusta State in Tuesday’s night’s Southeast Region final.
The road to Springfield was a rocky one for West Liberty as IUP (26-6), which had beaten the Hilltoppers in last year’s Atlantic Region final, was more than primed for the rematch.
Neither team led by more than six points in a see-saw first half which ended with a cold-shooting West Liberty team on the short end of a 38-37 score.
The hole could have been considerably deeper had Chris Morrow, a 6-7 sophomore, not come off the bench with 13 much-needed points for the Black and Gold.
The Hilltoppers used one of their trademark scoring bursts to gain the upper hand early in the second half.
Jordan Fortney’s curl to the hoop with 17:52 on the clock not only put West Liberty ahead to stay at 41-40, it sparked a run of 15 unanswered points in just over four minutes.
The highlight of West Liberty’s run came when Pelle sailed down the lane and soared into the air for an apparent layup attempt only to whip a last-second baseball pass out to fellow senior John Wolosinczuk for a 3-pointer which forced IUP into a timeout, trailing 49-40 with 15:56 on the clock.
Coming out of the timeout, the Hilltoppers forced a Crimson Hawks turnover on the in-bounds pass. Pelle quickly stepped into a deep 3-pointer and the crowd erupted in celebration of the game’s first double-digit lead, 52-40, with 15:44 to play.
The lead hit 16 points on two occasions, the last time coming at 11:13 when Pelle cashed in an in-bounds pass for a 66-50 advantage, but the Crimson Hawks wouldn’t go away.
Webb’s conventional three-point play with 5:17 remaining capped a 13-2 Indiana run and pulled the visitors within a bucket at 75-73.
That was as close as they would get as West Liberty scored 8 of the game’s next 10 points to take an 83-75 lead into the final 3 minutes.
Indiana’s Scooter Renkin drained a pair of 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds, cutting the lead to 89-86, and the Crimson Hawks got one last chance with 11 seconds remaining only to see two potential tying 3-point attempts fail to drop.
Pelle finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists to lead the winners while Morrow turned in 20 points – including a 3 of 4 showing from behind the 3-point arc – for his night’s work. Wolosinczuk – who was named to the all-tournament team – added 13 points and nine rebounds while Falk and Fortney chipped in with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Webb had a double-double with 23 points and 16 rebounds to lead IUP while Sanders hit four 3-pointers and finished with 17 points.