Devin Hoehn swished a pair of free throws with just 4.1 seconds remaining here Wednesday night to seal a harrowing 67-64 victory for unbeaten and No. 1-ranked West Liberty against Shepherd in a Mountain East Conference thriller at the ASRC.
Coach Jim Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers (7-0, 3-0) had to overcome one of the worst shooting nights of his 13-year tenure – missing a staggering 35 3-point attempts – in order to survive a strong effort from the veteran Rams (3-2, 2-1) in a game that saw 6 ties and 9 lead changes in the second half alone.
“I think the main positive to take from this is that we were able to beat a pretty good basketball team on a night when we shot 6-of-41 from the 3-point line,” Crutchfield said. “We work on close game situations n practice all the time but sometimes effort is really the key.”
The well-disciplined Shepherd squad carried a 62-58 lead into the final three minutes but a pair of Brandon Smith free throws cut the margin to 62-60 with 2:59 remaining and the Black and Gold hit the comeback trail.
The Rams’ A.J. Carr couldn’t get a jumper to go down at the other end and Hoehn gave West Liberty a 63-62 lead when he cashed in an “and-one” free throw after getting a twisting layup to go down with 2:02 to play.
Shepherd answered with a clutch 16-foot jumper from Naim Muhammad for the Rams’ final lead of the night, 64-63, as the clock ticked past the 2-minute mark.
The Hilltoppers ran the shot clock down into single digits before Dan Monteroso knifed into the lane to muscle up a hotly-contested 8-footer that dropped through the twine for a 65-64 WLU lead with 1:35 remaining.
After each team misfired on its next possession, Shepherd called timeout with 22 seconds left to set up a potential game-winning shot.
The Rams had to settle for a deep 3-point attempt by Steffen Davis which barely drew iron. The ball was knocked out of bounds with 5 seconds remaining and possession went to West Liberty.
With Shepherd forced to foul in order to stop the clock, Crutchfield wanted to make sure the ball wound up in Hoehn’s hands.
“Devin’s a senior who doesn’t miss many free throws,” Crutchfield said. “In that situation, we were going to try really hard to get the ball to him.”
Hoehn popped open in the corner to take the in-bounds pass and was fouled with 4.1 seconds on the clock. He calmly splashed both charity tosses through the net – making him a perfect 12-for-12 on the season – to close out the scoring as the Rams’ desperation 3-pointer skimmed off the rim at the buzzer.
Hoehn finished with a game-high 24 points while Smith was WLU’s only other double-figure scorer with a dozen tallies. Zac Grossenbacher had 10 rebounds to go along with 6 points despite missing most of the first half due to foul problems while David Dennis turned in 6 points, 6 rebounds and a game-high 7 assists for his night’s work.
Carr paced Shepherd with 17 points and 11 rebounds while Davis finished with 14 points and Winston Burgess added 11 points and 10 boards.
“Give them credit,” Crutchfield said. “They’re a very experienced, very well-coached team that came in here with a really good game play and did a great job of executing it. With all those veterans, they don’t make a lot of mistakes. We probably needed a game like this with so many good teams in this conference.”
The Hilltoppers face another one of those good MEC teams on Sunday when they travel to Fairmont to take on the unbeaten and No. 11-ranked Falcons, who are coming off an overtime win at No. 4-ranked Wheeling Jesuit on Wednesday night. Tipoff for Sunday’s nationally-televised game from Joe Retton Arena is set for 4 p.m.