FRISCO, Texas -- The top two scoring teams in NCAA Division II didn’t disappoint in their most pressurized game this season.
Lincoln Memorial pulled out a spine-tingling 103-102 victory over West Liberty Thursday evening in the national semifinals at the Dr. Pepper Arena.
“I told our guys to the day I die, this game will be burned in my memory,” Lincoln Memorial coach Josh Schertz said. “I have been doing this for 18 years and I have never been a part of a game this good and to have this game happen on this stage.
“It was two teams that were competing their brains out. I have an unbelievable amount of respect for West Liberty. What a group of competitors.”
There were so many storylines and star players, starting with Lincon Memorial senior Gerel Simmons and West Liberty senior Seger Bonifant. Both leaders made plays down the stretch, trying to send their team into championship game.
“It was a fun game like coach said,” Bonifant said. “They were hot behind the arc and yet we were only down one at halftime. We kept our nose to the grind.
“It would have hurt a lot more if we knew we didn’t play well and lost. But we played our hearts out.”
Bonifant made all 12 of his free throws and finished with 44 points, which was the most in a Division II semifinals since 1971.
“I told our guys before the game that Bonifant was the best player I have seen at this level,” Schertz said.
Simmons was almost as good. He finished with 35 points and seven assists.
“I couldn’t keep up with him,” Simmons said of Bonifant. “I kept confidence in my offense. I just took my shots when they were there.”
It came down to Lincoln Memorial making just one more free throw down the stretch to win its 24th straight game to head into its first-ever national championship game.
The Railsplitters, 34-2, will attempt to become the first athletic team in Lincoln Memorial history to win a NCAA Division II national title. In 2007, the men’s soccer team finished runner-up.
West Liberty finished its season 31-4.
“I thought we played really well,” West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said. “I thought Lincoln Memorial played well, too. I was hoping they would have a colder day behind the arc. That didn’t work.
“Our guys have a lot of heart. When they lose a game like this, it hurts them. I hate to see these guys hurt, but I wouldn’t want to coach players that didn’t hurt after a loss like this.”
The last two minutes had the drama of a Hollywood movie. It began with Bonifant breaking a 93-93 tie with a basket.
Simmons put the Railsplitters right back in front at 96-95 with a 3-pointer with 1:57 left. West Liberty reclaimed the lead with two free throws by Bonifant.
Simmons came right back with a basket to give Lincoln Memorial a 98-97 lead with 1:20 left. The key play for the Railsplitters came with 45 seconds remaining when Simmons hit a 3-pointer that gave Lincoln Memorial a 101-97 lead.
The rest of the game was a free throw shooting contest and both teams felt the pressure by missing several key free throws.
As it turned out, the one of two that junior Luquon Choice made to give Lincoln Memorial a 103-100 lead was the difference. But the Railsplitters had to hold their breaths when freshmen David Dennis half-court shot glanced off the backside of the rim.
“As a coach, it was incredible to watch,” Schertz said. “You are not scoring points or grabbing a rebound, but I watched the competitiveness of two teams. How many great plays were made in that game down the stretch, Bonifant and Gerel and David Dennis. He was incredible. It was guys making play after play after play.”
There were so many players that came up with clutch plays. Lincoln Memorial junior guard Curtis Webb was one of them. He came off the bench and went three for three on 3-pointers in the second half when Choice was on the bench in foul trouble.
“The one thing that was really kind of a back breaker was when they had a guard come off the bench and hit three 3s cold,” Crutchfield said.
West Liberty started fast in the second half, turning a one-point deficit into its biggest lead of 62-56, by going on a 9-2 run.
The situation was looking even bleaker for Lincoln Memorial with about 15 minutes left. The Railsplitters trailed 66-60, Choice picked up his fourth foul and senior Jalen Steele limped off, clutching his left hamstring.
Despite all those things going against Lincoln Memorial, the Railsplitters responded, scoring eight of the next 10 points, including an alley-oop dunk from sophomore Emanuel Terry.
“Just like we have been all year, if somebody is not able to produce because of foul trouble, the bench comes in and they are like starters. It is like we have two starting fives.”
Lincoln Memorial went ahead 72-70 on a power move to the basket by sophomore Dorian Pinson.
Trailing 80-76, West Liberty took its turn to surge back in front. Four points from Dennis and less than a minute later, Bonifant drilled a 3-pointer, putting the Hilltoppers on top at 81-80 with 7:42 left in the game.
A minute later Bonifant broke an 83-83 tie with a slick post move in the paint and then showed his wide array of shots by hitting a 3-pointer to put the Hilltoppers up 88-83.
Down 91-86, Lincoln Memorial came right back with five straight points to tie the game with 3:55 left.
And this back-and-forth action continued until the final buzzer.
The first half was exactly the same. By the time the near-historic offensive show ended in the first half, Lincoln Memorial held a 54-53 lead over West Liberty. The 107 points was the second highest total in the first half ever in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.