The No. 5-ranked West Liberty University men’s basketball team led virtually wire-to-wire here Wednesday but had to hold off a late Stonehill (Mass.) surge to claim a 75-74 win in an NCAA Division II Elite Eight quarterfinal at Dr. Pepper Arena.
Coach Jim Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers (31-3) advanced to Thursday night’s 7 p.m. national semifinal against No. 1-ranked Lincoln Memorial, Tenn. (33-2). The Railsplitters used a strong second half to hammer unranked Barry (Fla.), 93-75, in Wednesday’s other afternoon quarterfinal.
West Liberty hit eight straight shots from the floor during an 18-5 run midway through the second half to finally gain some separation against the scrappy Skyhawks (24-9).
“That stretch was really huge for us,” All-American Seger Bonifant said. “We had a lot of guys making plays. Mike Lamberti, Devin (Hoehn) and David (Dennis) were all making plays and finishing at the rim, When we start making plays like that, it really energizes us on the defensive end. That was a big sequence, especially with how close it got down the stretch.”
Hoehn tossed in nine of his 19 points during the surge and Bonifant capped the spurt with a conventional 3-point play, turning a 45-45 deadlock into a 63-50 Hilltopper lead with just 8:17 remaining.
“I thought we had a chance to open the game up when we went up by 13,” Crutchfield said, “but Stonehill hit some clutch 3-pointers under pressure and kept coming back. I was very impressed by how well they were coached and how well they played together offensively.”
Stonehill slowly chipped away at the deficit, getting a big lift when Bonifant was whistled for his fifth foul with 3:18 to play.
The Skyhawks made it a one-possession game, 70-67, on a pair of Pierce Cumpstone free throws at 1:13 but West Liberty calmly ran the shot clock down into single digits before Hoehn drained a 15-footer from the elbow, making it 72-67 with 51 ticks showing.
“With the way (Stonehill) was playing, we knew we couldn’t just sit on the lead. We had to score down the stretch and we hit some big shots,” Crutchfield said. “The shot that Devin hit from the elbow that put us up five with less than a minute left was probably the biggest shot of the game. “
Carter Smith hit two free throws for Stonehill with 41 seconds left but WLU ran all but a few seconds off the shot clock again before Hoehn was fouled on his way to the rim with 16 seconds left. Hoehn splashed home two more charity tosses to restore the 5-point margin.
Smith scored on a quick drive to the hoop, cutting the lead to 74-71, but Hoehn hit the second of two free throws after being fouled on the in-bounds to provide just enough breathing room. Cumpstone’s 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer left the Skyhawks one point shy.
The Hilltoppers had to overcome foul problems and a poor shooting night to punch their third “Final Four” ticket in the past four seasons. Bonifant chalked up a double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds – both game-highs – before fouling out but failed to hit a 3-pointer (0-for-4) for only the third time all season. Outside of that critical 4-minute burst in the second half, West Liberty was just 20-of-54 (37 percent) from the floor and 5-of-23 (22 percent) from the 3-point arc as a team.
“When we don’t shoot well and still manage to pull out a win, I think that shows how important defense is to us,” Bonifant said. “Coach has been preaching that all year and we’re slowly but surely starting to recognize that. Offense comes and goes but defense is what’s going to win for you down here.”
Big second half performances from Hoehn and Dennis helped the Black and Gold advance. Hoehn tallied 14 of his 19 points after intermission while Dennis knocked down 10 of his 12 points in the final 20 minutes.
Cumpstone had 21 points and 10 rebounds to pace Stonehill, which also got 14 points and 8 rebounds from Ryan Logan, 13 points from Adam Bramanti and 11 points from Smith. The Skyhawks shot nearly 50 percent (11-of-23) from behind the 3-point arc but the Hilltoppers neutralized that advantage with a 14-4 edge in points off turnovers.
Crutchfield and his staff were able to watch a few minutes of Lincoln Memorial’s win in the first game of the day.
“That’s a very impressive basketball team,” Crutchfield said. “They’re the No. 1 seed down here this week because they deserve it. There’s no doubt about it.
“We’ll start working on them as soon as we leave here and that’s the only thing we’ll be focusing on between now and tomorrow night. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge but we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
X Playing in their 8th NCAA Division II Tournament, the Hilltoppers improved to 24-7 (.774) in NCAA Tournament play. That’s the highest winning percentage among all current NCAA Division II schools
X Thanks to that 8-for-8 streak during their second-half surge, the Hilltoppers shot 45 percent (28-of-62) from the floor for the game – just a tick better than Stonehill’s 44 percent (24-of-55) showing
X West Liberty has won 146 of its last 147 games over the past six years when shooting a higher percentage from the floor than its opponents
X The only exception was an 84-77 loss to Central Missouri in the 2014 Elite Eight National Championship Game at Evansville, Ind. and even that was a close call. WLU went 28-of-62 (.452) from the floor compared to CMU’s 30-of-68 (.441)
X The Hilltoppers are 118-2 over the past seven years – and a perfect 24-0 this season – when holding their opponents under 80 points
X Bonifant has reached double-figures in every game this season and has tallied 20 or more points in 27 of West Liberty’s 34 games
X The senior All-American now has 849 points this season and 2,245 for his career – both are West Liberty records
X Dennis needs just 2 more assists to reach 200 for the season