FRISCO, Texas In the first half, West Liberty (W.Va.) point guard David Dennis Jr. had a statistical line of a freshman. He made one of six shots in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight against Stonehill (Mass.).
But midway through the second half with the game tied, Dennis Jr. ran the point like a seasoned veteran, scoring with drives to the baskets and handing off a couple of nice assists.
The energetic burst from Dennis Jr. triggered 10 straight points and keyed West Liberty’s 75-74 victory over Stonehill Wednesday afternoon at the Dr. Pepper Arena.
“We had to score down the stretch,” West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said. “We are good three-point shooting basketball team. We talk all year when you don’t have a great shooting day, it doesn’t mean you lose the basketball game.
“I look at the numbers today. They shot it well. They were 11 for 23 from the three-point arc and we were 6 for 24 and we still managed to pull out a win. We did some things right.”
West Liberty, 31-3, will take on top seed Lincoln Memorial, 33-2, at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“I watched Lincoln Memorial play and they were very impressive,” Crutchfield said.
West Liberty needed an impressive stretch to advance to the semifinals.
For the first 9 minutes in the second half, it appear it was going to be the same as the first half when West Liberty took a slim 32-30 lead into halftime.
Hilltoppers maintained their narrow margin in the early portion of the second half. They had a brief spurt that gave them a 43-38 lead, but Stonehill came right back with five straight points and tied the game at 43-43.
It was 45-45 when the Hilltoppers started rolling. A basket by senior Seger Bonifant began the run. Dennis Jr. followed with a basket. On the next possession, Dennis Jr. found junior Devin Hoehn for a field goal.
“The game had a weird feel to it,” Dennis Jr. said. “Nobody knew who was going to make the run. On this team, everybody shoots and everybody believes in everyone. We had to get stops and we got stops when we needed them.”
The 10-0 run concluded with a basket from Dennis Jr. After Stonehill scored, the Hilltoppers got back-to-back three-pointers from Hoehn, pushing the lead to 60-47.
“I thought we had a chance to open it up, but they hit some big threes under pressure,” Crutchfield said. “I was impressed how well they were coached and how well they played together.”
Stonehill fought back and closed to 63-56 and that was when Bonifant came up with a three-point play.
But every time West Liberty built a double-digit lead, the Skyhawks battled back. With 5 minutes left, a basket by senior Adam Bramanti closed the gap to 68-62. It got one point closer when senior Josh Heyliger made a free throw a minute later.
Leading by five points, West Liberty’s freshman once again showed the poise of a veteran. Dennis Jr. stepped to the free throw line with 3:30 left and made both to increase the Hilltoppers’ lead to 70-63.
“He has great poise,” said Seger, who finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. “He has been making plays for us all year. We all trust him. Like coach said, we all have confidence in each other. I think that makes us a really good team.”
West Liberty was thankful for that one burst a while back, especially when Stonehill senior forward Pierce Cumpstone made two free throws with 2 minutes left and added two more free throws a minute later, helping the Skyhawks close to 70-67 with 1:10 left.
Hoehn answered with a 10-foot jumper with under a minute left. And with 16 seconds left and West Liberty leading by three, Hoehn made two free throws to make it a two-possession game.
Stonehill simply didn’t go away. The Skyhawks pulled to within three with a basket 8 seconds later. Hoehn went back to the free throw line with 7.5 seconds left and made one of two for a four-point lead.
“This group,” Stonehill coach Chris Kraus said, “won’t back down. They showed it. They cut a 10-point deficit down to a one-point game. It has been a statement of who this group is, their resiliency and toughness. They showed it all year and they showed it again today.”
Indeed. The Skyhawks refused to quite, Cumpstone’s fifth three-pointer with a second left made it a one-point game. Cumpstone finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
“It is tough to see it end for this group, a group that has worked so hard to get to this point,” Kraus said. “I am so proud of these guys.”