LOUISVILLE, Ky. A trip to the Muhammad Ali Museum leading up to Saturday's NCAA Division II national semifinal contest with West Liberty gave the Metro State men's basketball team all the confidence it needed to land a knockout blow. Then the Roadrunners went out and played a little rope-a-dope before finally flooring the No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers.
Nicholas Kay, Jonathan Morse and Brandon Jefferson led five players in double figures with 17 points each and Metro State (32-2) used one clutch basket after another to hold off a furious West Liberty (34-2) rally that came up just short, 83-76 at Freedom Hall. The Roadrunners, who hail from Colorado, will play Drury out of Missouri on April 7 in Atlanta for the right to call themselves national champions.
"We just threw our heart out there," Metro coach Derrick Clark said. "To hold a team like that to 76 points is a heckuva effort.
WEST LIBERTY guard Shawn Dyer is tied up by a Metro State defender during Saturday’s NCAA?Division II?semifinals at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. The Hilltoppers were eliminated from the tournament, 83-76. West Liberty finishes its season with a 34-2 record.
WEST LIBERTY senior Alex Falk goes up for a shot in traffic during Saturday’s NCAA?Division II?semifinal at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. The Hilltoppers were eliminated by Metro State.
"Our guys were levitating to play the game and they got off to a great start I couldn't have scripted it any better."
In the end, Metro State outplayed West Liberty at its own game, building a 20-4 lead midway through the first half. The Toppers struggled from the floor the entire game, hitting only 34 percent of their shots, but it was the first half where this game was ultimately decided. The Roadrunners used a zone defense to hold West Liberty to 28 percent (10-for-35) shooting in the opening 20 minutes to grab a 41-28 lead at halftime.
"We were struggling to put the ball in the basket which is kind of unusual for us. Frustrating? Yeah, it was frustrating for me and I could tell it was for my players,'' said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, who saw his team eliminated in the Final Four for the second time in three years. "We're good shooters but they just didn't fall, and I'm sure that had a lot to do with the Metro defense.
"Metro played a great, smart game and had a good level of intensity. When it's all said and done, they're advancing to the final game."
It wasn't quite that simple though, because the Hilltoppers kept punching back. Senior Alex Falk scored 10 straight West Liberty points to cut the deficit to six, but Metro responded with seven more as McCarron sandwiched a third-chance bucket and a 3-pointer around a score from Kay to get it back to 13.
West Liberty has made a living the last four years by making timely, big shots just when the opponent would change the momentum, but the shoe was on the other foot Saturday. Falk hit for three of his game-high 34 to get it back to a seven-point deficit before Morse faded away from the left side and kissed one off the glass.
Then West Liberty cut it to one on a C.J. Hester hoop inside before the Roadrunners stemmed the tide by getting the free-throw line, where they held a sizeable advantage. Metro State finished 27 of 35 at the stripe while the Toppers hit 7 of 8 all by Falk. That was a byproduct of Metro being physical in the paint and West Liberty shooting a whopping 47 3-pointers, only 13 of which were good.
"That's probably too many," said Falk, who went past the 2,000-point mark in his career in the game. "A lot of them weren't great looks and nobody took more of those than me."
Falk completed a three-point play to again make it a one-point game (69-68), but the Hilltoppers never could get over the hump. Jefferson buried a back-breaking 3-pointer on the next possession and the Roadrunners closed on a 13-8 run to send them on to Atlanta.
"One of the things we talked about, and we talk about it every game, is poise,'' Clark said. "You know a team like that is going to make a run. We weren't going to have a 16-point game the whole game.
"That's why I put as much pressure as I can, so that they can shine in times like this. When (WLU) got it to one I don't think anyone on our bench was panicked like 'oh, we're in trouble.' It was time to make a play and that's what we did."
West Liberty, whose only lead was 2-0, simply built itself too big a hole early. It's a situation the Hilltoppers aren't all that used to, having lost a total of six games the last three years three in the Elite Eight or Final Four.
"At halftime I felt like we were going to win the basketball game, and I felt that way because I'm around these guys and know what they can do,'' Crutchfield said. "It was a nightmare.
"There's no doubt about that."
Cedric Harris backed Falk, who also contributed six steals and three assists, with 12 points but was the only other Hilltopper in double figures. Seger Bonifant and Chris Morrow added nine points each, while Shawn Dyer netted eight.
Demetrius Miller scored 15 for Metro State and McCarron had 14 points and 16 rebounds.