C.J. Hester became West Liberty’s all-time rebounding leader Wednesday night as the unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers coasted to a 96-73 victory against Malone (Ohio) at the ASRC.
Hester, a 6-4 senior from West Mifflin, Pa., just missed his fourth consecutive double-double with 9 points and 9 rebounds but it was more than enough to erase a 42-year-old record from the West Liberty (9-0) record books.
The 2-time NCAA Division II Academic All-American pushed his career rebounding total to 965, eclipsing Doug Krueger’s previous school standard of 959 rebounds. Krueger played for the Hilltoppers from 1969 to 1972.
“C.J. is never the biggest guy on the court and never the tallest guy on the court,” head coach Jim Crutchfield said, “but he’s going to be the first player in 88 years of West Liberty basketball with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, which is a tremendous tribute to his desire. He has 960-some rebounds now because he battled for every one of them.”
The Hilltoppers never trailed after Hester gave them a 4-3 lead with – what else? – a stick-back hoop at 17:18 of the first half but struggled to find their shooting touch in the early going and the Pioneers (3-6) were able to maintain contact for much of the first half.
West Liberty led just 28-26 with 7:24 on the first half clock after a 3-pointer by Malone’s Jason Miller but back-to-back 3-pointers by WLU’s Seger Bonifant and Zak Kirkbride ignited a 19-4 Hilltopper run that put the game on ice just before the half.
Five different players scored for the Black and Gold during that surge as the hosts’ full-court pressure began to take its toll and, despite hitting just 4-of-17 shots from the 3-point arc, West Liberty breezed into the locker room with a 47-33 lead.
“I thought our guys off the bench – Kirkbride, (Joe) Lococo, (Brandon) Smith, (Brady) Arnold and (Zac) Grossenbacher ratcheted things up a notch on the defensive end for us tonight,” Crutchfield said. “Even though we weren’t shooting the ball that well, we helped ourselves with several easy baskets off turnovers and were able to stretch things out a bit.
“You’ll have good shooting nights and bad shooting nights but if you control the things you can control – rebounding, defensive pressure, second-chance shots – you can overcome that. A good basketball team doesn’t have to shoot the ball well every night to win and that’s why we were up 14 points at the half.”
Malone never threatened in the second half with the Hilltoppers leading by as many as 25 points on several occasions down the stretch.
Bonifant – the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 ppg. – led all scorers with 28 points while reigning MEC Player of the Week Devin Hoehn added a dozen points and Grossenbacher picked up his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in just 17 minutes of action.
Neil Gingerich paced the Pioneers with 18 points while Miller and Gus Simmers added 10 each.
West Liberty will be idle through the holidays before heading into the teeth of the Mountain East Conference schedule in January. The Hilltoppers open second semester play on the road Jan. 3 with a 4 p.m. game at Concord.