West Liberty in Final 4 after knocking off defending champ

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Seger Bonifant came off the bench to hit 6 of 6 from 3-point range and West Liberty rallied from an 11-point, first-half deficit against defending champion Drury, earning an 85-75 victory in an NCAA Division II men’s basketball national quarterfinal Wednesday night at the Ford Center. The Hilltoppers (30-3) face USC-Aiken at 9:30 p.m. today in the Final Four, with a berth in Saturday’s championship game on the line.

The victory marks the second consecutive year West Liberty has advanced to the Final Four.

“I thought we got better as the game went on,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, whose team won its 30th game for a fourth straight season. “In the second half I thought the key was a few turnovers in the back court from our pressure.

“We kind of got a little rally going and when those turnovers turn into buckets and Seger makes a bunch of 3s, that makes a difference.”

Did it ever.

West Liberty eventually tied the game right before halftime with an 11-0 run that concluded with Devin Hoehn knocking in a 3-pointer to make it 32-32.

The Panthers (28-4) took a two-point lead into the locker room, but the seed had been planted.

“When we were preparing for them, in our opinion, they play the game in two- or three-minute segments,” Drury coach Steve Hesser said. “In the first half we had an 11-point game and then they had a two- or three-minute segment and were right back in the game.

“In the second half, there was a time there when it was going back and forth but they had a segment where a young man comes off the bench and makes 6 of 6 from 3 and you have to give him credit.”

The Hilltoppers withstood not only every punch the Panthers threw, but also considerable foul issues.

Zak Kirkbride fouled out in just 13 minutes of action, and Atlantic Region Player of the Year and consensus first team All-America point guard Cedric Harris was whistled for his fourth personal with more than 13 minutes remaining, just when both he and his team finally seemed to be getting the game to their liking.

“I was a little frustrated, but with the teammates that are behind me, the guys that come in are just as good as me,” Harris said. “Coach said he was going to put me back in with nine minutes left whether I had my fourth foul or not.

“I wasn’t really worried about it, but I was frustrated.”

The numbers back up Harris’ claim. West Liberty’s bench outscored Drury’s by an astounding 52-6 margin, led by a game high-tying 20 from Bonifant.

The game-deciding run happened to coincide with Harris’ return to the floor.

After Drury took its final lead (60-59) in a game that featured 11 ties and 10 lead changes, a pair of free throws from C.J. Hester (12 points, six rebounds) put West Liberty ahead, 61-60. That’s when Bonifant started his assault.

He hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, then buried two more, the second one bouncing high off the rim and through the net, and suddenly it was a 10-point WLU cushion.

“My teammates found me wide open,” said Bonifant, who entered the game shooting 54 percent from the 3-point line. “You’re not going to get that many chances this time of year so when you get them you have to make them.

“It’s real easy when you’ve got guards like Shawn (Dyer) and Ced and Devin and Bubby (Goodwin) and those guys. We knew they were a great defensive team that closed down when you drive.

“Those guys were driving and passing and I just knocked them down.”

The Panthers couldn’t cut the lead below nine the rest of the night, with Dyer (13 points, game-high five assists) providing the dagger with a 3 from the top of the key that made it 81-66.

“I watched them on tape and they cover ground like crazy. If there is anywhere fatigue showed a little bit, it was the last 7-8 minutes of the game,” Crutchfield said. “Maybe in the second half they weren’t getting there as quickly as they were in the first half.

“A couple turnovers and good ball movement and spacing led to open shots. Nothing like a turnover and a quick 3 to rattle a team, and we had a couple of those.”

There was a reason for that, according to Drury All-American guard Kameron Bundy, who led his club with 20 points.

“Their press was giving us big problems in the back court,” he said. “We had a couple turnovers that led to some easy baskets for them, and you can’t give that team those opportunities.”

Harris finished with 16 points for the Toppers, while Keene Cockburn pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. The Panthers’ Ian Carter recorded a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Cameron Adams and Lonnie Boga added 18 and 13 points, respectively.