Finally. After years of coming close, coach Jim Crutchfield is a DII men’s basketball national champion as the Sharks are champions for the first time in program history. Nova Southeastern defeated West Liberty, 111-101, in the highest scoring championship game in history and one of the more memorable title games in the history of the division.
Nova Southeastern becomes the sixth undefeated champion in DII men’s basketball history. The Sharks also became just the second team to score 100 points in the championship game, joining Virginia Union’s 1992 championship team. The 111 points are not only the new DII championship game record, but the most points scored in any college basketball championship game, men's or women's.
RELIVE IT: How Nova Southeastern won the 2023 DII men’s basketball national championship
The storylines heading into this game were bountiful. Nova Southeastern head coach Jim Crutchfield became just the third DII men’s basketball coach to take two different programs to the championship game. The other team? The squad staring him down on the other side of the court. He led West Liberty to a national runners-up finish in 2014 when current head coach Ben Howlett was his assistant.
This was the first time the two top scoring teams faced each other in the DII men’ s basketball championship game. And the two teams certainly filled the bill. The first half went to Nova Southeastern, which came out of the high-scoring half with a 55-48 lead, the most combined points in the first half of a DII men’s basketball championship game. Bevo Francis finalist RJ Sunahara came out on fire, scoring nine of the first 15 points of the game and finishing the half with 20 as the Sharks set the DII championship game record for most first half points.
HOW IT HAPPENED: The final 2023 DII men's basketball bracket
West Liberty was a bit apprehensive at first and it took about 10 minutes to get comfortable and knock the jitters out. Bryce Butler, another Bevo Francis finalist, was held to just one shot in the first 10 minutes of the game, and the Hilltoppers need him going to get that high-octane motor rolling.
Dallas Graziani provided a spark for the Sharks when West Liberty pulled it close, hitting a pair of big 3s and getting fouled on a third attempt. A pretty lob that Sunahara finished off with a dunk certainly helped keep the momentum going. But the half ended in a scoring flurry from the suddenly hot Hilltoppers and Sharks. Step back 3s that hit nothing but net from Zach Rasile and Will Yoakum — who had a monster first half himself — were exchanged like blows in a heavyweight match to close the half in one of the most exciting minutes of play all season. The two teams combined to go 13 for 26 from behind the arc in the first half.
And that was just the first half. Act II was equally intense.
The second half was much more physical, with a pair of flagrant fouls from West Liberty in about four minutes to start the half. Every point was earned, as bodies hit the floor on every drive, with neither team wanting to relent and more than 50 combined fouls between the two teams.
But even that couldn’t stop these high-flying offenses.
Butler was sensational in the loss and played hard to the final whistle, almost single handedly keeping the Hilltoppers in the game. He sparked a late 11-2 run that brought the Hilltoppers in striking distance. He finished with 32 points on 11-for-19 shooting and nine rebounds. Chris Montague had a big day from 3, going 5 for 7 from behind the arc and finishing with 19.
Inevitably, there was too much foul trouble for West Liberty to overcome. Yoakum, who found himself in foul trouble early in the second half, was used as a free throw specialist, and finished with 31 points, capping a brilliant postseason with his third 30-point game in his final four tries. Sunahara fouled out, but still finished with 28 points and nine rebounds. Graziani’s engine never stopped, finishing with 24 points and nine assists.
It was a thrilling game from start to finish, one that there were no ties or lead changes. The top two offenses in the land delivered one of the most memorable performances in DII Men's Elite Eight history, and the Sharks walk away the winners of the 2023 national championship.