WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – A national television audience saw No. 2 West Liberty win its seventh straight conference championship in the most impressive way possible on Saturday, leading by double-digits most of the way in knocking off No. 1-ranked Wheeling Jesuit, 82-74, before a sellout crowd at a raucous ASRC.
The NCAA Division II National Game of the Week was televised coast-to-coast on the American Sports Network and more than lived up to its billing as Coach Jim Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers (26-2, 20-2) avenged an earlier loss to the Cardinals (27-2, 20-2), who saw a 22-game winning streak go by the boards in a mutual regular season finale.
It was the seventh consecutive league title for Crutchfield, whose teams have won the first three Mountain East Conference titles after claiming the last four West Virginia Conference crowns, but the two-time National Coach of the Year said it didn’t come easily.
“It’s a credit to the young men who have come through our program to have won seven straight league championships,” Crutchfield said. “I don’t rank them – they’re all special – but I will tell you we’ve never had to work harder to win one than we did this year and that’s not just blowing smoke.
“Fairmont’s No. 5 now and they were No. 2 when we played them. Jesuit beat us when we were No. 1 and came in here having won 22 straight and ranked No. 1 today. We’ve never had to beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country to win a championship before. I can’t imagine that’s happened very often.”
With an overflow crowd at a fever pitch, West Liberty came out of the blocks with all guns blazing.
The Hilltoppers drained four 3-pointers in the game’s opening minutes with Seger Bonifant’s bonus bomb giving the hosts a 16-6 lead with 14:47 still showing on the first half clock.
West Liberty kept its foot on the gas and pushed the lead as high as 17 points on multiple occasions before a late WJU surge trimmed the halftime margin to 40-30.
The Hilltoppers picked up where they had left off when play resumed and a Devin Hoehn 3-pointer restored the 17-point lead, 61-44, as the clocked ticked under 13 minutes.
The Cardinals took advantage of some poor WLU foul shooting down the stretch and eventually closed to within six points, 76-70, on an Eric Siefert jumper with 2:16 remaining.
Jesuit forced a turnover at the other end and came out in transition only to see a hustling Brady Arnold come up with a huge steal from behind. Zak Kirkbride was fouled and made both free throws to make it 78-70 with 1:38 to go.
The visitors – held to 37 percent (28-of-75) shooting for the game – never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“We said in practice yesterday that this game was going to be won on the defensive end,” Crutchfield said. “Wheeling Jesuit has so many weapons and they’re such a talented team that they’re extremely hard to guard. You have to play great defense to beat a great team and I think that was the difference tonight.”
The Hilltoppers shot just under 50 percent (27-of-56) from the floor and showed excellent offensive balance with all five starters hitting at least one 3-point field goal and scoring in double-figures.
Hoehn, playing only his second game in four weeks after an injury, knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 20 points. David Dennis Jr. added 15 points and 8 assists while Bonifant finished with 14 points and 5 rebounds. Mike Lamberti stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals while Zac Grossenbacher had a dozen points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks.
“I thought we got out and guarded their 3-point shooters really well,” Crutchfield said, “and Seger and Zac did a good job of making it tough for them to finish inside. We’re a good foul shooting team so I don’t know what was going on with the missed free throws at the end but we had built up enough of a cushion and were playing well enough on defense that it didn’t cost us.”
Haywood Highsmith had 23 points and 10 rebounds – both game-highs – for the visitors while Justin Fritts added 18 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists off the bench.