West Liberty to national semis following dominant win against Winona State
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -– No. 1-ranked West Liberty forced Winona State into 21 turnovers and led by as many as 31 points down the stretch Thursday afternoon in crushing the Warriors 110-84 in an NCAA Division II Elite Eight quarterfinal at historic Freedom Hall.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (34-1) will ride a 20-game winning streak into Saturday's noon semifinal against No. 3-ranked Metro State, Colo. (31-2). The Roadrunners pulled away to a 78-65 win against unranked Franklin Pierce, N.H. in Thursday's first quarterfinal.
West Liberty maintained a slim lead for the majority of a first half that saw 8 ties and 4 lead changes and used a late 11-0 run to open up a 50-41 lead at intermission.
Winona State briefly closed the gap to 59-53 on a pair of Taylor Cameron free throws with 14:47 remaining but a pair of Alex Falk free throws and back-to-back 3-point bombs from Chris Morrow and Shawn Dyer ignited what proved to be a decisive 19-4 Hilltopper burst during the next four minutes.
Dyer accounted for nine of West Liberty's points during the run with a pair of 3-pointers and three unanswered foul tosses after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.
When Cedric Harris closed out the run with a conventional 3-point play -– drawing the fourth foul on WSU All-American Clayton Vette in the process -– the Hilltoppers had opened up an insurmountable 78-57 lead with 10:16 still remaining. The lead never dropped below 20 points in the final 10 minutes.
Falk, the Division II National Player of the Year, and All-WVIAC guard Cedric Harris paced another balanced offensive barrage from the Hilltoppers, who put six players in double-figures while hitting the century mark for the 21st time this season.
“It's always a team game,” Crutchfield said. “That's West Liberty basketball [and] we like to think it's something special, just going out and playing hard for 40 minutes. I thought we played a good hard-nosed basketball game [Thursday] against a really good Winona State team and I'm really proud of these guys.”
Falk and Harris shared scoring honors with 23 points each. Harris finished with five assists, five rebounds and a pair of steals while Falk added three assists and two steals while harassing the Warriors from one end of the court to the other.
“This was a very emotional game for both teams,” Falk said. “Fortunately, we've been here before and we experienced the other side of it last year [because] we let it get to us. I think we learned from that and it helped us [Thursday].”
Sophomore forward C.J. Harris scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds against Winona State's towering front line. Dyer and Chris Morrow each knocked down a dozen points while freshman Seger Bonifant came off the bench with 11 points.
The Warriors, who suffered their most lopsided loss since a 102-65 blowout at South Dakota State on Dec. 28, 2003, were led by Taylor Cameron's 18 points. Vette finished with 14 points -– only two in the second half –- while Grant Johnson and Kellen Taylor rounded out the double-figure scorers with 13 and 10 points, respectively.
“It just came down to the experience factor,” Harris concluded. “We've been here before. We know how to bottle up our emotions and we know the game's not over until the clock hits zero. We don't take anything for granted; we just keep playing hard.”