EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- The numbers are staggering.
West Liberty averages more than 101 points a game. The Hilltoppers hit 141 points in a win against Point Park (Pa.) this year. They’ve topped 120 points six times. They average 13 points more a game than the highest-scoring team in Division I.Yet do not call this team a run ‘n gun team. The Hilltoppers don’t have a set number of shots they are expected to take every game. They don’t have a team rule about the number of seconds allowed in each offensive possession. Two-time national coach of the year Jim Crutchfield simply wouldn‘t have it that way.
“We never ever talk about the number of possessions in a game and we never talk about how many points we’ll score in a game,” Crutchfield said.
Others do. When the Hilltoppers won their final regular-season game of the year 70-50 against Wheeling Jesuit, the whispers could be heard in the hallways at West Liberty in West Virginia. What happened?
“I walk in the office and everybody’s saying, ‘What went wrong?’ We won by 20 points is the bottom line.”
In its NCAA DII national quarterfinal-round game Wednesday night, the nation’s highest-scoring team needed to play defense in order to survive against 2013 national champion Drury. And in a way, that played right into the way the Hilltoppers like to play. The Hilltoppers are coached to use pressure defense to set up its offense.
“We do play a style defensively that is aggressive, sometimes risky,” Crutchfield said. “We don’t want to cross that line where we’re giving away points and eventually giving away games because of it. But it’s risky and aggressive enough that it usually means the other team gives the ball up by them shooting it or [West Liberty] stealing it pretty early. Still, the main goal remains get a basket without them scoring.”
It means that the Hilltoppers chase opposing players all over the court in an attempt to force turnovers.
“It’s definitely not easy,” senior guard Cedric Harris said. “It’s a tough task. If it was easy, everybody would do it, you know? Our defense is what sets it. Everybody doesn’t want to play full court, everybody doesn’t want to pressure all the time. It’s not easy.”
In its 85-75 win against Drury, which set up a semifinal-round game Thursday night at the Ford Center against S.C. Aiken, West Liberty (30-3) used full-court pressure defense to turn the game. An 11-0 run late in the first half erased an 11-point deficit.
“They’re a great team,“ Crutchfield said. “Their strength is about team offense and team defense. It was very hard to defend them.”
Once West Liberty established its defense, sophomore forward Seger Bonifant took over. He is not a starter. He doesn’t have the offensive stats that Harris (17.9 points per game) or Keene Cockburn (12.1 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game) do. But that’s the thing about West Liberty. There are multiple offense weapons.
Bonifant hit all six 3-point shots he took. He buried 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions in the second half, turning a one-point lead into a 10-point margin. His 20 points tied for game-high honors and if there‘s anybody have a great time, it‘s Bonifant.
“It’s the best offense in the nation,” Bonifant said. “The freedom coach gives us. He doesn’t tell guys, ‘You can’t dribble, you can’t shoot.’ That gives us confidence. It’s just a lot of fun. You can’t beat it.”
Once the West Liberty scoring machine gets going, it can be tough to stop. The Hilltoppers’ shooting percentage of .494 ranks among the top 20 in the nation. Their average of 12.5 3-pointers per game rank third. In a game against Point Park, it took 113 shots.
“It’s an amazing feeling. If we’re shooting the ball like that, we’re going to be real tough to beat,” Harris said. “You’re going to have to outshoot us.”
And for all his talks about pressure defense, the fun about West Liberty really does come down to its offense.
“Philosophically, what we’re trying to do is maintain an offensive attack that is attacking all the time,” Crutchfield said. “If it takes 35 [seconds], then it takes 35, but it usually doesn’t.”