The No. 1-ranked West Liberty University men's basketball team had all the answers Sunday night in blasting West Virginia Conference rival Fairmont State, 100-77, in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region tournament to the delight of a raucous crowd at the ASRC.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's two-time defending champion Hilltoppers (32-1) will try to become the first Atlantic Region team ever to win three consecutive regional titles on Tuesday when they take on No. 10-ranked Indiana, Pa. (26-5) in the Atlantic Region championship game.
The Crimson Hawks held off Slippery Rock, 53-50, in Sunday's first semifinal tilt. Tuesday's regional championship game is set for a 7 p.m. tipoff at the ASRC.
"They're one of the top 10 teams in the country so obviously it's going to be a great challenge as well as a great opportunity for us on Tuesday," Crutchfield said, "but in all honesty, we haven't even looked at IUP yet. All our focus coming into tonight was on Fairmont."
The Falcons – who were swept by West Liberty in a pair of close games during the regular season and came out on the short end of a 92-78 count in the WVIAC Tournament championship game – seemed determined to make the fourth time be the charm on Sunday night.
Fairmont State never led but kept things close for most of the first half before the Hilltopper defense stepped into the spotlight, holding the Falcons to just one field goal in the final 5:49 of the half.
With the Fairmont offense stuck in neutral, West Liberty began to find some success attacking the basket and stretched a 27-24 one-possession game into a 42-27 halftime lead.
The Hilltoppers picked up where they had left off when play resumed and pushed the lead out to 72-51 on a Shawn Dyer free throw with 9:57 showing on the second half clock.
"Everybody talks about our 3-point shooting but we won this game by making layups," Crutchfield said. "(Fairmont) was really aggressive in trying to take away the 3-point shot tonight. Layups are my favorite shots and we handled the ball well enough against that defense to get a lot of layups tonight. I thought that was really the key to the game."
The Falcons weren't ready to call it a season just yet. Following Dyer's free throw, Fairmont took off on a 15-4 run of its own over the next 2 minutes with Stevie Browning's 3-pointer at the 7:47 mark cutting the lead to 76-66 and bringing the Falcon fans to their feet.
The Black and Gold let the air out of that rally with a 16-1 burst over the next 3 minutes. Chris Morrow's fast break layup on a feed from Atlantic Region Player of the Year Alex Falk gave WLU its largest lead of the night, 92-67, and put the game out of reach with 4:30 to go.
"Fairmont's a very good basketball team so I'm not surprised they made a run there," Crutchfield said. "We may have lost a little focus there for a couple of minutes but I thought we responded pretty well and did a good job closing the game out."
Falk's game-high 21 points paced a typically balanced attack for the Hilltoppers. Morrow finished with 17 points despite sitting out much of the first half with foul problems while C.J. Hester just missed a double-double with 15 points and 9 rebounds. Tim Hausfeld added 13 points, Dyer finished with a dozen and Cedric Harris knocked down 8 points and handed out a game-high 7 assists.
Malik Stith had 18 points while Brendan Cooper added 14 points and a game-high 10 rebounds for Fairmont State.
X This will be the third time West Liberty and IUP have met in the Atlantic Region championship game
X IUP defeated the Hilltoppers, 84-72, in the 2010 regional final in Indiana with West Liberty returning the favor, 89-86, in 2011
X The Hilltoppers knocked off Shaw, N.C., 89-78, in last year's regional championship game
X Crutchfield has won 21 of the 22 games he's coached against the Falcons during his 9 years at the helm
X The Hilltoppers improved their NCAA Tournament record to 11-4 overall and 10-0 at the ASRC
X West Liberty is 77-1 in its last 78 games at the ASRC, dating back to 2008
X With a win against IUP on Tuesday, West Liberty would tie the NCAA Division II record of 127 wins in four consecutive seasons, set by Kentucky Wesleyan from 1998 to 2001
X The Hilltoppers are now 141-5 (.966) under Crutchfield when shooting 50 percent or better from the floor – including a perfect 23-0 mark this year