West Liberty set for quarterfinal showdown

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There was little to no horse play as West Liberty went through a 55-minute workout Wednesday at Louisville’s Freedom Hall in preparation for today’s NCAA Division II national quarterfinal men’s basketball matchup at 2:30 p.m. with Winona State. The tone was serious and bordered on business-like.

“We did transition and I wouldn’t say we were going through the motions last year, but the guys were diving on the floor (Wednesday) going after the ball,” Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield said. “I think that maybe they’re just a little bit more hungry than they were last year.”

The talk leading up to this Elite Eight contest between the No. 1 Hilltoppers (33-1) and unranked Winona State (27-7), has been the considerable size difference between the teams. The bigger, stronger Warriors could present some matchup problems for a West Liberty team that prefers to do its damage in the open court.

The key then, may come down to which club can exert its will.

“I definitely think we (will),” Hilltoppers sophomore forward C.J. Hester said. “It’s easier to speed up a team than it is to slow one down.

“They’re not used to playing at our tempo. We can play slower and run the shot clock down if we have to.”

West Liberty center Chris Morrow figures to have his hands full with All-American Winona center Clayton Vette, who is a mountain of a specimen by D-II standards. At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, Vette, and Iowa State transfer, uses his frame to get close to the rim at every turn and averages nearly 21 points and eight rebounds a contest.

Again, there’s a contrast in styles because Morrow (6-6), who can score underneath when called upon, will make Vette work defensively because of his shooting touch.

“I’m very comfortable on both ends of the court and he’s going to have to step out and guard me,” Morrow said. “If he doesn’t, hopefully I’m looking at a lot of wide-open shots. Not just me, but C.J. and Seger (Bonifant). We’ve got a lot of big guys who can shoot the ball.

“We’re going to find out how good his defense is. Hopefully it’s not as good as his offense.”

This is the point the Toppers’ season ended a season ago in a 91-90 loss to upstart Stonehill, Mass. That experience would be an advantage against most programs, but Winona State is in the midst of its ninth NCAA appearance (20-6) and fourth trip to the Elite Eight under the direction of coach Mike Leaf. Included are two national championships (2006, 2008) and a runner-up finish in 2007.

“With Winona State you think ‘this is a Division-I basketball team’ with the size and talent they have,” Crutchfield said. “They’ve got a rich tradition there at Winona.

“They’re really good. They can shoot the ball. They pass it well and play well as a team.”

The Warriors, who began the season ranked No. 11 in the country and reached as high as ninth, have a somewhat deceiving seven losses on their ledger. With the exception of a 15-point defeat at the hands of a Concordia University team that lost 18 games, it’s fairly easy to see why.

Winona State finished with the second-best strength of schedule in the country, with six of the losses coming against teams that won at least 20 games. One of those, Metro State, joins the Warriors and Hilltoppers in Louisville.

“We’re focusing on playing our game and playing as hard as we can for 40 minutes. That’s been the key for our success and we’re not going to change that,” West Liberty All-American forward Alex Falk said. “We don’t want to get into a half-court game with them.

“We want to get up and down the court and wear them down with our press. People who watch us know we play hard.”