Feb. 28, 2009

Courtesy West Liberty State Athletics

The West Liberty men's basketball team saved its best for last Saturday afternoon.

The high-flying Hilltoppers scored 15 points in the final three minutes and pulled away to a 93-80 victory against Wheeling Jesuit in front of a national television audience and an overflow crowd at the ASRC.

Saturday's game had been selected for an NCAA Division II national game of the week broadcast by CBS College Sports Television and it certainly lived up to its billing.

With the Cardinals (12-15, 10-10) hitting seven 3-point shots in the first half, the Hilltoppers (21-6, 16-4) trailed by as many as nine points but entered the locker room at intermission in a 46-46 tie thanks to Mike Mathey's fadeaway 14-footer at the buzzer.

Five ties and six lead changes kept the raucous crowd on the edge of their seats for much of the second half.

Shane Maynard put West Liberty ahead to stay, 68-67, with a pretty spin move at the 8:20 mark but the issue was far from being decided.

"We didn't do a very good job of getting to their shooters in the first half," said Hilltopper head coach Jim Crutchfield. "We lost them a couple of times in the second half but we also came up with some big defensive stops when we needed them."

The Hilltoppers were still clinging to a four-point lead when John Wolosinczuk beat the shot clock with a huge 3-pointer from the right corner with 2:48 remaining, giving the hosts an 81-74 advantage.

Cedric Harris scored on a putback for Wheeling Jesuit at the other end, trimming the deficit to 81-76, but Mathey answered with a pair of free throws for an 83-76 Hilltopper lead with 1:42 to play.

The West Liberty defense forced a Maqsood Harrington miss at the other end and the Hilltoppers ran more than 20 seconds off the shot clock before Corey Pelle pounded the final nail into the Cardinal coffin with a dagger-like 3-pointer.

Pelle's clutch shot gave West Liberty an 86-76 lead with just 1:03 remaining. The Hilltoppers went 7-of-8 from the charity stripe in the final 45 seconds to close out their seventh straight win.

"I thought we finished the game very well today," Crutchfield said. "We knocked down some open shots, made our free throws and got a couple of stops at crucial times.

"It was a great college basketball atmosphere with the big crowd and national television. This was a very nice win for us heading into the tournament."

Ben Howlett led the winners with 25 points - 16 of them coming in the second half - while Mathey made a run at a triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists. Maynard added 17 points while Pelle finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds.

Kyle Higgins hit five 3-pointers and paced Wheeling Jesuit with 25 points. Harrington was the only other double-figure scorer for the Cardinals with 17 points.

The Hilltoppers, who finished third in the WVIAC standings, will host Bluefield State (3-24, 3-17) Tuesday night in a WVIAC Tournament first-round game. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at the ASRC.