West Liberty, East Stroudsburg cut from same cloth

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. – Following a three-overtime victory against Indiana, Pa., less than 24 hours earlier, the West Liberty men’s basketball team returned to the Koehler Fieldhouse floor Monday afternoon for what turned out to be a very light, 1.5-hour practice in anticipation of today’s Atlantic Regional championship at 7 p.m. against host and No. 1-seeded East Stroudsburg (30-1). The second-seeded Hilltoppers (28-3) did not do much outside of shooting and a few drills, but that was by design.

West Liberty, which will be playing in its fifth consecutive regional final and looking for an unprecedented fourth straight victory, has been preparing for this game all season, even though coach Jim Crutchfield obviously didn’t know the opponent until late Sunday night.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of the same things and it comes down to who is going to be able to do them the best,” said Crutchfield, who owns a 269-48 record and has his program on an 11-game regional winning streak. “We tell them all the time about ‘this is how you deny inbound passes and this is how you do this,’ but we haven’t talked about how you beat that very often because we haven’t faced that.

“We’re going to face it. The good thing is, we do it to ourselves an awful lot early in the season.”

Coach Jeff Wilson’s Warriors have attempted to emulate West Liberty’s style of play and have enjoyed great success – a 112-38 record the last five seasons – in the traditionally more methodically paced Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, having won two straight league crowns after not having done so since 1990. West Liberty and East Stroudsburg last met in 2011 as the Hilltoppers emerged with a 119-82 victory in an Atlantic Region quarterfinal – the most points scored in an NCAA Division II tournament game in 10 years.

“I would say half the game will be played in transition with a lot of full-court pressure by both teams and a lot of up-and-down,” Crutchfield said. “Both teams are fairly deep, but they may be a little bit more inclined to go inside to the big man (Rasheed Moore).

“The one thing we’re fighting is it’s tough playing on the road. We’ve been in the hotel for five days and there will be 2,500 people rooting against us, and for the other team.”

Given that West Liberty enters having just played what equates to nearly a game and a half, and the fact this one would seem to be headed for a high pace, fatigue naturally comes into question. The Toppers’ 10th-year coach does not think it will play a role.

“If the game was (Monday) I would be concerned,” Crutchfield said. “With this day off they should be recouped, fine and 100 percent ready to go. They really should be.”

East Stroudsburg is led by two-time All-Atlantic Region guard Whis Grant, who as a junior is averaging 17 points and nearly four assists per game. Moore, a freshman, scores 13 a night, and Jamal Nwaniemekachecks comes in at 12.8. Matt Tobin (9.3) and Will Brown (9.0) off the bench, are near double-figures.

“They are very physical for their height. I think size-wise we match up OK to the point where that’s not going to be the issue,” Crutchfield said. “You hope (experience) helps.

“I don’t know if it helps or not, but you hope so.”

The Toppers counter with seven double-digit scorers, led by Harris with 17.8 and six assists. C.J. Hester adds 14.5 points and a team-leading 8.3 rebounds, while Shawn Dyer follows with 14.3 points and is the fourth-leading rebounder as a guard.

Devin Hoehn averages 12.1 and holds the school record for 3s in a season by a freshman (79) while Keene Cockburn checks in at 11.9 and is coming off a nine-block performance. He already has the WLU single-season record with 88, and is 12th in the country at 2.66 per game.

Crutchfield, whose teams won those three straight regional titles inside the friendly confines of the ASRC, doesn’t mind having to try to make it four on the opposition’s court.

“Any way you look at it, let’s go,” he said. “We’re in the regional final with a chance to go, so we are excited about it either way.”

The winner advances to the Elite 8 in Evansville, Ind., and will face the survivor of defending national champion Drury and sixth-seeded Michigan Tech, a week from Wednesday. The Atlantic Regional is the only one in which the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds reached the final, and likewise, is the lone championship featuring a pair of Top-10 teams – East Stroudsburg at No. 2, and West Liberty at No. 7.