HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Unranked Stonehill (Mass.) overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half and held off several West Liberty surges down the stretch to shock the nationally-ranked Hilltoppers, 91-90, in an NCAA Division II Elite Eight quarterfinal thriller Wednesday afternoon at The Bank of Kentucky Center.
The Skyhawks’ Patrick Lee hit two free throws with 5 seconds remaining for a 91-87 lead and Alex Falk‘s desperation 3-pointer – his second bonus bomb in the final 10 seconds – left West Liberty one frustrating point short of advancing to the national semifinals for the second consecutive year.
“We had some things that didn’t go our way,” head coach Jim Crutchfield said, “but I think you have to give Stonehill a lot of credit. I thought they played really good basketball and they gave great effort. They beat us to a lot of loose balls today and that doesn’t happen to us very often.”
The combination of a hot-shooting Skyhawk team and serious foul trouble plagued the Hilltoppers (32-3) almost from the opening tip as Stonehill (25-8) led by as many 9 points during the opening half and took a 45-41 lead into the locker room at intermission.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Brian Hamor pushed the Skyhawk lead back up to 57-48 with 15:43 remaining but also seemed to serve as a wake-up call for the West Liberty offense.
With standout point guard Cedric Harris on the bench with four personal fouls, Shawn Dyer came off the bench with a couple of key steals to help ignite the Hilltoppers’ longest scoring run of the day.
A pair of C.J. Hester free throws with 12:15 remaining capped the 17-1 spurt and gave West Liberty a 65-58 lead.
The Hilltoppers weren’t finished, eventually pushing the margin out to 71-61 on a Dyer layup with 10:13 to go but that turned out to be the high-water mark as the WLU offense ran into another dry spell.
West Liberty hit just two baskets over the next six minutes while Stonehill – which shot nearly 60 percent from behind the 3-point arc on the day – put together its own extended run.
When Dyer finally ended the drought with a conventional 3-point play at the 3:46 mark, it halted a 23-6 Skyhawk run that had produced an 84-77 lead for the East Region champs.
Dyer followed that up with a steal and found Tim Hausfeld for a transition 3-pointer, cutting the margin to 84-83 with 2:37 to go, and both teams came up empty on their next two possessions as the game entered the final minute.
Stonehill’s Patrick Lee broke the scoring ice with a rebound basket at the 53-second mark and added a layup for an 88-83 lead with 36 seconds remaining after a Hilltopper turnover.
Alex Falk and Lee traded free throws with 23 ticks left and West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield called a quick timeout with 7.5 seconds showing after a Falk 3-pointer had cut the gap to 89-87 but Lee made both free throws after being fouled on the in-bounds pass to put the game out of reach.
“It hurts too much to think about it right now,” Crutchfield said, “but a few weeks from now, we’ll be able to look back and realize that we had a great season. Outside of the coaches and players in our locker room, I don’t think anybody expected us to get back here (to the Elite Eight) after losing four 1,000-point scorers to graduation from last year’s team and I’m very proud of my guys.”
Falk finished with a game-high 26 points to pace WLU while Keene Cockburn and Dyer added 17 and 15 points, respectively, off the bench. Hausfeld chipped in with 13 points but Atlantic Region Tournament MVP Cedric Harris battled foul trouble throughout and finished with 5 points in just 17 minutes of court time before fouling out with more than 4 minutes to play.
Andre Tongo led four double-figure scorers for the Skyhawks with 24 points.