WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – The No. 7-ranked West Liberty men’s basketball team slammed the defensive door on defending NCAA Division II East Region champion Daemen (N.Y.) down the stretch here Monday night to muscle out a 63-61 win in an early-season battle of 2021 Elite Eight qualifiers.
Coach Ben Howlett’s Hilltoppers (5-1) have won 13 of the last 16 national scoring titles but it was defense that got it done for WLU on this night against a veteran Wildcat squad that returned all five starters – including 2-time All-America center Andrew Sischo – from last spring’s Elite Eight powerhouse.
“If you would have told me we were going to shoot 6-of-24 from ‘three’ and 9-of-19 from the foul line and beat this caliber of team, I would have thought you were nuts,” Howlett said. “I’m maybe as proud of these guys tonight as I’ve been of any team in my coaching career. They battled; they fought; they kept chipping away and found a way to win despite all that.”
The 6-9 Sischo, coming off a 37-point, 14-rebound game in a win against previously-unbeaten Saint Rose (N.Y.) on Saturday, had a big first half with 16 points and 6 rebounds as the visitors carried a 36-29 advantage into the locker room but the second half was a different story.
“Viktor (Kovacevic) and Marlon (Moore) were spectacular,” Howlett said. “With a team as good as Daemen, you have to pick your poison. Do you double-down in the post on Sischo and leave their shooters or do you go one-v-one in the post and defend the perimeter. We opted to go one-v-one and both those guys had tremendous effort and that gave us a big lift.”
Sischo, who leads all NCAA Division II men in career points and rebounds, had just 6 points and 7 rebounds over the final 20 minutes while coughing up 5 turnovers against the WLU defense.
Daemen led by as many as 10 points in the early minutes of the second half before the Hilltoppers embarked on a rollercoaster of a comeback trail. The Wildcats’ Nick MacDonald hit a runner in the lane with 5:33 remaining for a 59-55 Daemen advantage but Pat Robinson answered for WLU at the other end to make it 59-57 as the game clock ticked past the 5-minute mark.
Those final 5 minutes were a study in defensive intensity with neither team taking a backward step.
Kovacevic forged a 59-59 deadlock with a 16-footer from the circle at the 4:12 mark and put the hosts ahead to stay with a runout layup at 3:04 off a great outlet pass from Bryce Butler.
Robinson made the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2:38 to go but the Wildcats got a clutch 16-foot jumper from Sean Fasoyiro – their only field goal of the final 5:33 – to make it 62-61 with 1:25 to play.
The WLU defense came up with back-to-back steals in the final minute but missed 3-of-4 free throws to keep hope alive for the visitors. Trailing 63-61, Daemen once again failed to get off a quality shot and settled for a desperation 3-point heave that failed to draw iron at the buzzer.
Kovacevic and junior guard Malik McKinney led the way for West Liberty with 16 points each. Butler added 10 points and 6 rebounds while Robinson contributed 10 points and 5 assists. Moore added 7 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals in a highly-productive 19 minutes of action.
Sischo paced Daemen with a hard-earned 21 points and 13 rebounds. Andrew Mason added 13 points and 9 rebounds in a losing cause.
“Coach (Howlett) always says great teams find a way to win close games,” McKinney said. “We didn’t shoot it too well from the floor tonight. We didn’t shoot it too well from the free throw line tonight. But we found a way to make the plays we needed to make down the stretch to come away with the win tonight and that’s all that matters.”
The Hilltoppers won’t have much time to celebrate. They go back on the Mountain East Conference road Wednesday night for a 7:30 p.m. game at West Virginia Wesleyan.