A pair of West Liberty veterans passed significant milestones and the unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers overcame West Virginia Wesleyan’s slow-down tactics in coasting to a 79-67 victory at the ASRC.
Senior C.J. Hester became the first man in 88 seasons of West Liberty (13-0, 8-0) basketball to reach the 1,000-rebound mark while junior Seger Bonifant – the nation’s leading scorer – became the 46th member of the Hilltoppers’ 1,000-Point Club.
“The way C.J. and Seger are, those things will probably mean a lot more to them in the future than they do right now,” head coach Jim Crutchfield said. “Maybe 15 years from now when C.J.’s a millionaire dentist going into the West Liberty Hall of Fame, he’ll be proud of having thousands of points, thousands of rebounds and a whole lot of wins to go with it.
“Right now, though, the only thing those guys were talking about in the locker room was that we have a big game with Glenville coming up on Monday.”
The visiting Bobcats (5-9, 3-5) did their best to keep the game at their pace, running the shot clock down to single digits on nearly every possession and limiting the Hilltoppers’ transition game.
With the exception of a brief one-point Wesleyan lead midway through the first half, West Liberty never trailed but the Black and Gold had a hard time creating any separation. The Hilltoppers were held to a season-low 36 points in the first half and led just 36-32 at the break.
“Wesleyan is a very well-coached basketball team that really focuses on playing possession by possession,” Crutchfield said. “We needed to get them out of their comfort zone.”
Hester, who battled foul trouble all afternoon, gave the hosts a lift when he opened the second half with a runout layup after a steal at midcourt. Devin Hoehn followed with a quick 3-pointer and the Hilltoppers had their largest lead of the game, 43-34, with just one minute gone in the second half.
West Liberty slowly began opening up a gap. A 3-point play by Mike Lamberti made it 48-36 at the 15-minute mark and three straight hoops from Zac Grossenbacher in a 1-minute span pushed it to 54-39 with 12:46 to go. A 15-footer by Seger Bonifant gave WLU its largest lead of the day, 61-43, with 10:41 on the clock.
“Wesleyan’s style isn’t really conducive to quick comebacks,” Crutchfield said, “so an 18-point lead against them is a little more significant than it might be against somebody else.”
The Bobcats didn’t change their tactics and the margin never dropped into single digits again. Wesleyan got it down to 75-65 on a three-point play by Chris Dewberry with 1:39 to go but the Hilltoppers gave them a taste of their own medicine, running the shot clock almost completely out before Indiana Faithfull rose up for a dagger of a 3-pointer with 1:03 remaining.
Bonifant led all scorers with 23 points – 19 of them coming in the opening half. Grossenbacher came off the bench with 17 points while Hoehn finished with a dozen. Brady Arnold rounded out the double-figure scorers with 10 points while Hester grabbed 10 rebounds in just 20 minutes of playing time.
Tanner McGrew led four double-figure scorers for the Bobcats with 15 points and 8 rebounds.
The win sets up huge game on Monday night as West Liberty travels to Glenville State (12-2, 8-0) for a showdown between the MEC’s last two unbeaten teams.
“I know the national championship (football) game between Ohio State and Oregon is Monday night,” Crutchfield said, “but our game with Glenville is the biggest game of the night. They’ll probably have the biggest crowd they’ve ever had in that nice new arena. I’ll DVR the football game but right now, Glenville is the only thing on my mind.”