West Liberty too much for Rams
West Liberty is no longer ranked first in the nation. The Hilltoppers aren’t unbeaten and have been tamed by Mountain East Conference members Fairmont and Wheeling Jesuit.
But with only two losses, the Hilltoppers are about to win another regular season league championship and will receive another bid to the NCAA Division II tournament.
And the Hilltoppers and their up-tempo style of play are still too much for Shepherd, beating the Rams 98-87 at the Butcher Center last Thursday to keep Coach Justin Namolik’s team reeling toward the middle of the 12-team standings.
A team that more often than not scores over 100 points a game, the quick-starting Hilltoppers used their patented quick-spurts of points to stop Shepherd for the second time this season and leave the Rams with a 13-11 overall record. West Liberty improved to 21-2 overall and could be aimed at a seventh straight 30-win season.
After only 2:35 of fast-paced play, West Liberty already had a 12-5 lead. Coach Jim Crutchfield asks any opponent to want to employ the same sort of run-run-run tempo he always craves. Shepherd was a willing participant in such a points-happy game.
Crutchfield used a two-platoon system, substituting five new get-to-the-basket players for his usual starters of C.J. Hester, Seger Bonifant, Indiana Faithfull, Joe Lococo and Devin Hoehn.
Using its typical fast break and pressure defense of “keep the tempo humming” basketball, West Liberty had eight players who could all drive successfully to the basket and create their own high-percentage shot. All the starters had nearly equal shot-attempt opportunities. And all had their moments when they scored before retreating to employ the generate-the-tempo pressure defense.
Often the Hilltoppers tried a shot within 10 seconds of securing possession. Whenever Shepherd had a couple turnovers, there would be a layup at the other end.
Leading, 49-39, at halftime, another West Liberty surge of seven straight points to open the second half extended the getting-out-of-hand margin to 56-39.
After that, Shepherd would find shallow spurts but could never manage to get any closer than 67-58 with fully 11:52 to play.
West Liberty scored the next six points . . . and a few more steals and driving layups moved the count all the way to 89-69 with about four minutes remaining.
The Hilltoppers had a fundamentally sound group whose quicksilver moves to the basket were led by Faithfull, a native of Sydney, Australia who transferred to West Liberty from Division I’s Wofford.
Shepherd’s season had been reduced to trying to finish seventh or eighth where it could get a first-round home game in the Mountain East tournament. The Rams have home games scheduled on Saturday, February 21, versus Concord (at 4 p.m.) and then again on Saturday, February 28, against Fairmont (again at 4 p.m.).
West Liberty shouldn’t harbor even faint hopes of winning a national championship this year, but could realistically be the league’s regular season winners, take the conference tournament title and then host still another NCAA tournament Regional in their smallish Northern Panhandle facility.