No. 1 Hilltoppers Meet No. 3 Metro State in National Semifinal

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Two teams that believe they learned a valuable lesson in abbreviated Elite Eight runs a year ago will battle for a shot at a national championship Saturday afternoon at Freedom Hall when No. 1 West Liberty (34-1) and No. 3 Metro State, Colo. (31-2) tip off at noon in the first of two Elite Eight semifinals.

The Hilltoppers and Roadrunners each posted double-digit wins in Thursday's quarterfinal round. West Liberty poured in 60 second-half points en route to a 110-84 thrashing of Winona State, Minn. while Metro State scored 16 of the game's last 18 points in pulling away to a 78-63 win against No. 20 USC-Aiken.
It was a different story last year when West Liberty and Metro State were each upset by lower-ranked teams in the quarterfinals. The No. 3 Hilltoppers were edged, 91-90, by unranked Stonehill, Mass. while the No. 13 Roadrunners fell, 67-65, to No. 22 Montevallo, Ala.
"It's a blessing to win this game and get the monkey off our back," Metro State's Brandon Jefferson told the media after Thursday's quarterfinal win. "We always brought up Montevallo. We used it as motivation."
West Liberty's players shared similar sentiments after beating a Winona State that struggled to maintain its composure at times during the second half.
"We experienced the other side of it last year because we let (the emotions) get to us," said Alex Falk, the Daktronics and Basketball Times National Player of the Year. "I think we learned from that."
With lessons learned and monkeys discarded, both spent the better part of Friday in preparation for what shapes up as a very interesting match up between a pair of tourney-toughened squads that have played in a combined 23 NCAA Tournament games over the past three seasons.
With Jim Crutchfield at the helm, West Liberty has led the nation in scoring (103.6 ppg.) for the seventh time in the past eight years and is one of only two NCAA Division II schools (Central Oklahoma, 1993-96) to average more than 100 points per game in four consecutive seasons.
That trend has accelerated in recent years. Thursday's 110-84 rout of Winona State was the 65th time the Hilltoppers have hit the century mark in their 104 games over the past three seasons. They're averaging 105.8 ppg. over that span and the Black and Gold has won this year's four NCAA Tournament games by an average score of 103-77.
By national standards, Metro State is no slouch in the scoring department. The Roadrunners rank 32nd out of 286 NCAA Division II teams in scoring at 78.7 ppg. and are among the nation's Top 20 in field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage. They're also No. 22 in scoring defense, allowing just 62.5 ppg., and that's almost certainly where Saturday's game will be decided.
It has been more than 12 years – 387 games to be exact – since a Metro State opponent hit the century mark. St. Cloud State ripped the Roadrunners, 100-61, in an NCAA Division II regional semifinal on March 10, 2001.
In fact, Metro State hasn't even allowed an opponent to hit 90 points in its last 169 games, dating back to a 91-76 loss at Colorado Christian on Jan. 15, 2008.
West Liberty's high-pressure defense produced 32 points off 21 Winona State turnovers on Thursday but WLU might find Metro State a tougher nut to crack. West Liberty ranks No. 7 nationally in steals (10.9 spg.) and turnover margin (+5.7) but the Roadrunners are No. 1 in fewest turnovers per game (10.0) and No. 2 in turnover margin (+6.6).
Both teams feature balanced attacks with five double-figure scorers.
The 6-3 Falk (20.9 ppg.) and 6-0 junior Cedric Harris (16.9 ppg.) paced WLU on Thursday with 23 points each. Rounding out the starting lineup is 6-4 sophomore C.J. Hester (12.4 ppg., 9.2 rpg.), 6-6 senior Chris Morrow (10.7 ppg., 5.2 rpg.) and 5-7 senior Tim Hausfeld (8.8 ppg., 65 3-point field goals). First off the bench are 6-0 sophomore Shawn Dyer (11.2 ppg.), 6-7 freshman Seger Bonifant (8.7 ppg., 65 3-point field goals) and 6-0 freshman Kelvin "Bubby" Goodwin (6.8 ppg.).
Jefferson, a 5-9 junior, is Metro State's leading scorer at 14.6 ppg. He's joined in the starting lineup by 6-8 senior second-team All-American Jonathan Morse (14.5 ppg., 8.4 rpg.), fast-rising 6-8 sophomore Nicholas Kay (10.6 ppg., 5.4 rpg.), 6-1 senior Demetrius Miller (13.8 ppg.) and 6-3 sophomore Mitch McCarron (13.1 ppg.). Top contributors off a lightly-used bench are 6-3 senior Tyler Cooper (2.7 ppg.) and 6-2 junior Jamal McClerkin (2.6 ppg.).
ELITE EIGHT NOTES
X The Hilltoppers returned to Freedom Hall Friday morning for a light workout in preparation for Saturday's semifinal showdown
X No. 4 Western Washington (31-2), the defending national champion, and No. 7 Drury, Mo. (29-4) meet in Saturday's second semifinal at 2:30 p.m.
X The two winners advance to the NCAA Division II national championship game, set for April 7 in Atlanta, Ga.
X Metro State head coach Derrick Clark was an assistant to current Charlotte Hornets' head coach Mike Dunlap on MSU's 2000 and 2002 national championship teams
X Morse has passed the 1,500-point and 1,000-rebound milestones for his career
X Kay and McCarron are natives of Australia. McCarron was a member of Australia's Under-19 national team
X Metro State won its first 22 games before dropping a 61-54 decision at Fort Lewis (Colo.) on Feb. 22
X That's the longest season-opening winning streak by an NCAA Division II team since the 2011 Hilltoppers reeled off 33 straight wins before falling to BYU-Hawaii in the Elite Eight semifinals
X Alex Falk set school single-season records for points (730) and steals (103) in Thursday's rout of Winona State
X Thursday's 34th win broke the previous school single-season record of 33 wins set by the 2011 Hlltopper team
X West Liberty is a perfect 34-0 in Saturday games over the past three seasons
X The Hilltoppers have won all six of their tournament games (WVIAC and NCAA) by double-figures this year

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