Toppers to play for title

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. – The West Liberty men’s basketball team showed a steely resolve Sunday at East Stroudsburg University’s Koehler Center. Because of that they have earned the right to play for a fourth consecutive NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional championship.

Shawn Dyer scored 24 points and regional player of the year Cedric Harris notched 21 points, six assists, four rebounds and a pair of steals, but it wasn’t until Indiana, Pa., freshman Cornell Yarde missed the back-end of a two-shot foul with 0.8 seconds remaining, that the Hilltoppers (28-3) were able to emerge with an 86-85, triple-overtime victory. West Liberty will take on No. 1 seed and host East Stroudsburg, which beat Gannon, 66-58, in the nightcap, at 7 on Tuesday for the right to go to the Elite 8 next week in Evansville, Ind.

“A lot of intensity and fortitude, as well as miles and miles and miles of heart,” said Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield, whose team won it’s 11th in a row in regional play. “That goes a long way in these type of basketball games.

“I think that is the mark of a couple really good basketball programs.”

The game featured 10 ties and 11 lead changes, with each team looking on several occasions as though it would put the other way. It never happened, though.

The Crimson Hawks led the entire first half before Harris knocked down a pair of free throws with 29.6 go to put the Toppers on top, 30-29. And for the second consecutive day Bubby Goodwin sent his team to the locker room on an upswing, this time with a steal and layup just ahead of the first-half buzzer.

West Liberty opened what proved to be the game’s largest lead (nine) by scoring five points – a Harris jumper and Seger Bonifant’s only basket, a 3 from the left wing – in a span of seven seconds early in the second half, forcing the Hawks to talk things over.

“I can’t repeat what I said in the timeout,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi joked. “I was just trying to grab them and refocus them, and they did.

“Usually what West Liberty does to most teams, is they don’t let you control the tempo and they wear you down and eventually they have a little spurt and teams let go of the rope. Then they take over.

“Our guys never let go of the rope.”

IUP responded with an 11-0 run to retake the lead at 45-43 before Goodwin stopped the bleeding with a drive and score. Keene Cockburn wiped out a sure dunk on the other end with one of his nine blocked shots, and C.J. Hester (game-high 13 rebounds) had WLU in front again as he got loose inside.

“That’s my role on this team,” said Cockburn, who had 10 blocks in the regular-season finale and set the school single-season record in last week’s Mountain East Tournament. “I’m the shot blocker and I was able to do that.”

Not long after, the teams began playing a game of ‘can you top this?’

A pair of free throws by Brandon Norfleet, who finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists before fouling out, provided the Hawks with a 56-51 advantage with 5:33 remaining.

Harris scored off a Hester steal and Dyer followed a Devante Chance deuce with two of his own, before Harris went to the line and knocked down two more free throws to cut it to a one-point deficit.

However, Marcel Souberielle hit what looked like a dagger of a 3-pointer for a four-point cushion with 2:13 left, but then also had the front end of a 1-and-1 roll out on the next trip.

That opened the door for the Hilltoppers and they responded as Harris drilled one of just five West Liberty 3-pointers (in 29 tries) to cut it to 1.

“That’s the mark of a good team, is when you don’t shoot the ball well and win against a really good team, which IUP is,” Crutchfield said. “We didn’t make a lot of 3s, but we talked about it being gut-check time.”

After Jeremy Jeffers cashed 1 of 2 at the line, Dyer dropped in a 3 from the left corner to put West Liberty back in front.

But, for the second time, Souberbielle, who finished with a game-high 27 points and also pulled down 10 rebounds despite not practicing the last two weeks because of injury, came through again with another 3-pointer, this one off-balance to tie it with 3.4 seconds left and send the game into overtime.

With West Liberty ahead by three (71-68) with a little more than a minute remaining in the first overtime, the Hawks took – and missed – four consecutive 3-pointers, rather than trying to get something at the rim. The Toppers couldn’t make them pay however, and the ball eventually found its way to Souberbielle for a 3-pointer to tie with 24.9 seconds left.

“It’s easy when you think you have the game won and to have a shot like that put in your face, to drop your head,” Crutchfield said. “We never did. I have to give our team a lot of credit.”

With the shot clock off, the Hilltoppers wound time down and played for the last shot. Cockburn’s jumper from about 8 feet away was short, but bounced into the air and through the net at the horn. The officials immediately waved it off for being too late, and replay upheld the decision.

Norfleet gave his club a 75-71 lead in the second overtime before the Toppers could find the basket, but Dyer broke the silence with a pair of free throws with 2:26 to go, then after a series of missed shots on each side, tied it with a pullup. Harris’ contested jumper at the horn came up short.

Dyer opened the third OT with a 3, Cockburn scored and the Toppers eventually gained some breathing room at 86-79 when Harris scooped up a steal at halfcourt and raced in for a basket.

Souberbielle immediately countered with a three-point play and a pair of free throws following a Dyer miss and suddenly it was 86-84. Harris and Dyer each missed 3s, as did Souberbielle, but a loose-ball foul on West Liberty’s senior point guard sent Yarde to the line.

After Yarde calmly sank the first, Crutchfield called a timeout. The second attempt clanged off the back iron and the Hilltoppers were able to exhale.