EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Before Saturday's NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship game was even 20 seconds old, West Liberty senior guard Cedric Harris cruised toward the basket.
He jumped and sent his shot toward the backboard. The ball kissed the glass and obediently dropped through the basket. Just like that, West Liberty had a 2-0 advantage on Central Missouri in West Liberty's first NCAA basketball title game.
It was an expected start for an All-American lock who averaged nearly 18 points a game this season for the nation's highest-scoring team in Division II.
Two hours later, Harris was only left with a heartbreaking memory. In his final college game as a graduate-level student, the Hilltoppers lost the national title game 84-77 to Central Missouri. The Hilltoppers left the court quickly as the championship celebration began for Central. Harris put his head deep into his hands at the postgame press conference. His eyes were still red from the emotion.
"I had an amazing career," he said a few minutes later, walking down a long hallway and back to the team's locker room.
And then he paused. Emotions were hitting again. Because when you get to the bottom of Harris, when you dissect the inner workings about West Liberty, it never was about an individual. That's why the Hilltoppers averaged more than 101 points a game during the regular season.
"It was all because of the team," Harris said. "I wouldn't be the player I was if it wasn't for the team. I have to give all credit to them. It's just been an amazing run just being here in the Elite Eight twice."
West Liberty lost in the semifinals last year, then advanced to its first title game this year.
Harris began his collegiate career at Wheeling Jesuit, then transferred to West Liberty after his freshman year. In the last three years, he helped the Hilltoppers win 97 games and was an All-American all three years. They won NCAA regional championships all three years. They lost just nine games, three of them coming in the NCAA Tournament. Harris hit double figures in scoring 84 times. He scored 18 Saturday.
"He's made an impact on this program in three years that's incredible," West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said. "That's why people have picked him as an All-American, all-region, conference player of the year."
Harris' 532 assists rank No. 2 in school history and his 1,663 points, including 18 in the title game, rank him No. 12 in school history.
But all those numbers are meaningless when it comes to a lost championship game. After the game, he walked down a hallway with a consoling arm around teammate Keene Cockburn, a senior forward. It demonstrated the unity that this team has had all season long.
"We're real close as a team. Everybody treats each other like family," Harris said. "That's why I loved being here since day one. Everybody just treats each other equal. Nobody's higher, nobody's lower, everybody is treated the same. That's why I love this team."
It was a feeling of a basketball family that brought Harris to West Liberty in 2011. He also liked Crutchfield's coaching style, which has resulted in West Liberty having the nation's highest-scoring offense in eight of the last nine seasons.
"I love everything about West Liberty," Harris said. "I love everything about coach Crutchfield. It's just been an amazing journey."
And while Harris' playing eligibility is now over, West Liberty has not seen the last of Harris. He still has one more year to go to complete his master's degree. He wants to be a coach. Could Harris be a graduate assistant coach next year? Harris said he wasn't sure because he is interested in possibly pursuing a professional basketball career overseas.
If Harris does turn to coaching right away, he wouldn't be the first at West Liberty to do so. Ben Howlett, an assistant coach, played at West Liberty from 2005 to 2009 and finished with 1,663 points -- the same career point total as Harris.