LOUISVILLE, Ky. – No. 1-ranked West Liberty forced Winona State into 21 turnovers and led by as many as 31 points down the stretch Thursday afternoon in crushing the Warriors, 110-84, in an NCAA Division II Elite Eight quarterfinal at historic Freedom Hall.
Coach Jim Crutchfield‘s Hilltoppers (34-1) will ride a 20-game winning streak into Saturday’s noon semifinal against No. 3-ranked Metro State, Colo. (31-2). The Roadrunners pulled away to a 78-65 win against unranked Franklin Pierce, N.H. in Thursday’s first quarterfinal.
West Liberty maintained a slim lead for the majority of a first half that saw 8 ties and 4 lead changes and used a late 11-0 run to open up a 50-41 bulge at intermission.
Winona State briefly closed the gap to 59-53 on a pair of Taylor Cameron free throws with 14:47 remaining but a pair of Alex Falk free throws and back-to-back 3-point bombs from Chris Morrow and Shawn Dyer ignited what proved to be a decisive 19-4 Hilltopper burst over the next 4 minutes.
Dyer accounted for 9 of West Liberty’s points during the surge with a pair of 3-pointers and three straight foul tosses after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.
When Cedric Harris closed out the run with a conventional 3-point play – drawing the fourth foul on WSU All-American Clayton Vette in the process – the Hilltoppers had opened up an insurmountable 78-57 gap with 10:16 still remaining. The lead never dropped below 20 points in the final 10 minutes.
Falk, the NCAA Division II National Player of the Year, and All-WVIAC guard Cedric Harris paced another balanced offensive barrage from the Hilltoppers, who put six players in double-figures while hitting the century mark for the 21st time this season.
“It’s always a team game,” Crutchfield said. “That’s West Liberty basketball (and) we like to think it’s something special, just going out and playing hard for 40 minutes. I thought we played a good hard-nosed basketball game today against a really good Winona State team and I’m really proud of these guys.”
Falk and Harris shared game scoring honors with 23 points each with well-rounded performances. Harris finished with 5 assists, 5 rebounds and a pair of steals while Falk added 3 assists and 2 steals while harassing the Warriors from one end of the court to the other.
“This was a very emotional game for both teams,” Falk said. “Fortunately, we’ve been here before and we experienced the other side of it last year (because) we let it get to us. I think we learned from that and it helped us today.”
Sophomore forward C.J. Harris scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high 9 rebounds against Winona State’s towering front line. Dyer and Chris Morrow each knocked down a dozen points while freshman Seger Bonifant came off the bench with 11 points.
The Warriors, who suffered their most lop-sided loss since a 102-65 blowout at South Dakota State on Dec. 28, 2003, were led by Taylor Cameron’s 18 points. Vette finished with 14 points – only 2 in the second half – while Grant Johnson and Kellen Taylor rounded out the double-figure scorers with 13 and 10 points, respectively.
“It just came down to the experience factor,” Harris concluded. “We’ve been here before. We know how to bottle up our emotions and we know the game’s not over until the clock hits zero. We don’t take anything for granted; we just keep playing hard.”
- West Liberty’s 110 points are the most scored by a Winona State opponent since a 113-81 loss at Moorhead State (Minn.) on Feb. 24, 1996
- The Hilltoppers have won their four NCAA Tournament games this season by an average score of 103-77
- Thursday’s 34th win broke the school single-season record of 33 wins set by West Liberty’s 2011 Final Four team
- WLU improved to 13-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament play
- Falk’s 730 points are a single-season school record. Eric Bovaird’s previous mark of 715 points had stood since 1995
- Falk’s 103 steals also set a school single-season record, eclipsing Corey Pelle’s 102 steals in 2011
- Falk passed Chuck Taylor (1,981 points) for 4th place on the Hilltoppers’ all-time scoring list with 1,990 career points
- West Liberty has shot better than 50 percent from the floor in 10 of its last 11 games
- The Hilltoppers are now 143-5 (.966) under Crutchfield when shooting 50 percent or better from the floor – including a perfect 25-0 mark this year