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David Boyce | NCAA.com | February 25, 2016

Division II games to watch: No. 1 Wheeling Jesuit at No. 2 West Liberty

  Wheeling Jesuit sits at No. 1 in the NABC poll, while West Liberty is No. 2.

Senior guard Justin Fritts arrived at Wheeling Jesuit in 2012 with Mr. Ohio basketball honors on his resume. He started 25 games last season as a junior. Before this season started, Wheeling Jesuit coach Danny Sancomb informed Fritts he was going to be the Cardinals’ sixth man.

“He was probably the most highly recruited player we had in our program,” Sancomb said. “He has scored a ton of points here, 1,700 points in his career. “He has accepted and embraced that role.”

Sancomb calls senior Eric Siefert a warrior and a winner, and senior Tim Goff has also accepted his new role this season and been a good teammate.

“They have shown guys the way,” Sancomb said. “They show every day in practice how to work. Our younger guys are awesome. They follow them and they know what they are supposed to do.”

One of the things that Sancomb stresses in his program is sacrifice for the overall good of the team. Younger players like sophomore forward Haywood Highsmith take notice of what seniors like Fritts have brought to the 2015-16 Cardinals.

“They mean a lot. They have been great leaders since I got here,” said Highsmith, who is averaging 14.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. “They have showed me how to become a better player on and off the court. Justin gave me tips. They have my back. I love this team.”

Being a team on and off the court and staying focused on the task at hand are reasons why No. 1 ranked Wheeling Jesuit is in position to finish off the regular season with a bang.

The Cardinals didn’t rise to be the top team in the country and first in the Mountain East Conference by looking ahead. Wheeling Jesuit, 26-1 overall and 19-1 in the MEC, is focused on its Thursday game (Feb. 25) at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. Notre Dame is 17-9 overall and lost only 88-84 at Wheeling Jesuit on Nov. 23

“It was so long ago we played them,” Sancomb said. “They are very explosive offensively. They have one of the best offensive players in our league. They have two guys scoring over 20 points per game. They play very fast. We are going to have to be very good on transition defense and very good at half court.”

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As competitive as the game against Notre Dame College is expected to be, all eyes outside the Wheeling Jesuit’s basketball program is on the game on Saturday. It can’t get much bigger than this in the last Saturday of regular season games for most Division II teams.

No. 1 Wheeling Jesuit travels to No. 2 West Liberty (W. Va.). The Hilltoppers are 24-2 overall and 18-2 in the MEC, one game behind Wheeling Jesuit. Wheeling Jesuit beat West Liberty earlier this season, but now the Hilltoppers get Wheeling Jesuit at their place where West Liberty is 15-0 at home.

Adding to the atmosphere is the game, scheduled for a 4 p.m. ET tipoff, will be broadcast by the American Sports Network in its Division II Basketball Showcase package.

“It is great,” Sancomb said of having the game televised. “I’m probably a little bit bias. I think our league is probably the best in Division II. We have three teams ranked in the top five in the country. If we are not on our game, we could lose to quite a few teams in our league.

“Our attention is totally on Notre Dame and then Friday our attention will be on West Liberty. We will play them on Saturday. Our guys will be ready to play them. It is great rivalry.”

Notre Dame is 11-9 in the MEC, but one reason why its conference record isn’t better is because of the three elite teams in the upper half. The third place team, Fairmont, is ranked No. 5 in the country and is 23-3 overall and 17-3 in the MEC.

“We can’t look past Notre Dame,” Sancomb said. “We want to continue to be No. 1 in the country. We want to continue to win every game we play. We have to focus in on the game at hand, which is Notre Dame.”

The Cardinals control their destiny to win the MEC, but they understand they have a tough road ahead of them over the next three days.

“They are both going to be tough road games,” Highsmith said. “Our mindset is to be focused on defense, focused on effort and to play hard. If we do those things for 40 minutes, we have a good chance to win those games.”

Wheeling Jesuit came into this season hungry. The underclassmen wanted to help the seniors go out the right way after the way last season ended. The Cardinals finished 21-10, but their last game of the season was a 73-63 loss in the semifinals of the MEC Tournament. Their record wasn’t quite good enough to get an at-large bid into the NCAA Division II Tournament.

“It left a bitter taste in our mouths,” Highsmith said. “We knew next year was our year because we weren’t losing anybody who was a key player. We knew 21-10 wasn’t enough. We knew we had to push harder.

“From the start, we have been serious about everything. We have been together and pushing each other in practice, in the weight room and conditioning.”

Highsmith is one of the players who have improved from last year.

“He was ready to play in college defensively right away,” Sancomb said. “He is long and can defend a few different positions. His offensive game has evolved so much.

“He has great work ethic. Our coaching staff has worked very hard with him. He has done the work. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor, to shoot the ball, to score with his back to the basket and to get offensive rebounds and run the floor. He can score in every way you can score.”

Highsmith ranks second on the team in scoring behind Siefert, who is averaging 15.3 points per game. Overall, the Cardinals have five players averaging in double figures.

Sancomb loves the unselfishness of his players. He said the five guys averaging in double figures could score 20 to 25 points in another system.

“We teach sharing the basketball, moving without the basketball,” Sancomb said. “They take on that perfectly. They are very unselfish and make a lot of sacrifices for the team.”

The leadership from the seniors is a big reason why Wheeling Jesuit has won all but one game.

“We know our seniors deserve this type of season,” Highsmith said. “It has a been a great season for them. We want to keep pushing and keep fighting because that is what we have to do to get where we want to go.”

Going For An Undefeated Season I

The goal of every team in position to make the NCAA Division II Tournament is to win it or at the very least, to win its regional and reach the Elite Eight. Still, it is quite an accomplishment to finish the regular season undefeated. It shows consistency through a long season and an ability to win every conference road game, which is difficult to do.

No. 1 Lubbock Christian women’s basketball team is in position to finish the regular season undefeated. The Lady Chaparrals enter their final two regular season games, Thursday (Feb. 25) and Saturday, both at home with a 24-0 overall record and 16-0 in the Heartland Conference.

Lubbock Christian will face St. Mary’s on Thursday and Texas A&M International on Saturday. Lubbock Christian beat both teams earlier this season. Senior Nicole Hampton, sophomore Tess Bruffey and senior Kelsey Hoppel are all averaging in double figures for the Lady Chaparrals.

Going For An Undefeated II

No. 3 Limestone College (South Carolina) women’s basketball team is also attempting a perfect regular season.

Although Limestone, 26-0 overall and 21-0 in the Conference Carolinas, wrapped up the conference a while back, it will face a stern test in its final regular season game at home on Friday against King (Tenn.). King is in second place in conference and lost only 66-64 to Limestone on Feb. 13. The Saints needed to make three of four free throws in the final 15 seconds to secure the two-point victory.

On the season, junior Jasmine Kearse leads the Saints in scoring, averaging 21.0 points and senior Maurissa Lester is second, averaging 14.6 points.