No. 4-ranked West Liberty grabbed control of the game just before halftime and never trailed in the second half Saturday afternoon in coasting to an 87-82 victory against Ohio County rival Wheeling Jesuit at the Cardinals' McDonough Center.
The three-time defending West Virginia Conference champion Hilltoppers (17-1, 11-1) played without All-WVIAC guard junior guard Cedric Harris but head coach Jim Crutchfield had no trouble finding players willing – and able – to rise to the occasion.
"The guys who took Cedric's minutes – Shawn Dyer, Kelvin Goodwin and Timmy (Hausfeld) a little bit – had to match up in the half-court against some bigger guards who are pretty hard to guard," Crutchfield said. "They really battled them in the paint but still got out on the perimeter to challenge Wheeling's 3-point shooters. We played one of our best defensive games of the season and I thought that was the difference tonight."
Dyer and teammate Alex Falk helped put West Liberty in the driver's seat in the final minute of a frantic first half that saw 4 ties and 8 lead changes.
Falk, a senior All-American, produced the final lead change of the night when he cashed in a feed from Chris Morrow for a 40-39 WLU edge with 1:02 on the first-half clock.
Dyer, a sophomore who started in place of Harris, then came up with a steal at midcourt and whipped the ball over to a streaking Falk for a runout layup.
After a Wheeling Jesuit (9-8, 6-7) miss, Dyer grabbed the rebound and threaded his way through the entire WJU team for a layup and a 44-39 Hilltopper lead with 34 seconds left.
West Liberty's defensive pressure forced another Cardinal turnover with 7 ticks remaining. Falk's ensuing 3-point try sailed completely over the rim and into the waiting hands of sophomore C.J. Hester, who laid it in just ahead of the horn for a 46-39 halftime lead.
Hausfeld opened the second half with a 26-foot 3-point bomb and the host Cardinals found themselves looking up at a double-digit deficit against a short-handed but scrappy bunch of Hilltoppers.
"That's why we put so much emphasis on the team concept here," Crutchfield said. "Different guys have been stepping up for us all year when one or two of their teammates were struggling because nobody cares if THEY score as long as WE score. To be able to do that tonight in such a great environment – on the road against a really good team with an overflow crowd – that kind of thing that never gets old."
The Hilltoppers led by as many as 11 points on a couple of occasions down the stretch before WJU mounted a brief run.
The Cardinals got the margin down to 4 points, 80-76, on an Andre Harris basket with 1:12 remaining but West Liberty hit 7-of-8 free throws in the final minute to close out the win.
Falk led all scorers with 27 points – including a 13-of-14 showing from the charity stripe – while also grabbing 9 rebounds and handing out 6 assists. Hausfeld added 17 points on 5 3-point field goals – each one seemingly longer than the preceding one. Hester finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds while Dyer turned in 12 points, 7 rebounds and a game-high 7 assists with only 2 turnovers in 36 minutes of action.
The Hilltoppers had their worst shooting night of the year from the floor – 25-of-57 (.439) – but made up for it with a season-high 26-of-29 (.897) performance at the foul line.
Ben Siefert and Andre Harris had 25 and 24 points, respectively, in a losing cause for WJU.
West Liberty returns home to host Bluefield State on Monday. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at the ASRC.