West Liberty tries to go from sweet to elite

WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – The No. 1-ranked West Liberty University men’s basketball team will be taking on a familiar foe Tuesday night when Coach Jim Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers take aim at an unprecedented third consecutive NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championship.

For the third time in the past four seasons, No. 10 Indiana (Pa.) is the last team standing between West Liberty and a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight national championship tournament. The Hilltoppers (32-1) and Crimson Hawks (26-5) will tip things off at 7 p.m. Tuesday in what is expected to be a jam-packed ASRC.

This will be a rubber match of sorts between the two programs as IUP beat West Liberty, 84-72, in the 2010 regional final played in Indiana, Pa. The Hilltoppers returned the favor the following season with an 89-86 regional championship victory at the ASRC.

The teams took very different paths through the regional field to reach Tuesday’s final. West Liberty, which leads the nation in scoring at 103.9 ppg., blasted CIAA Tournament champion Bowie State (Md.), 114-82, in Saturday’s quarterfinals before hammering out a 100-77 semifinal victory against Fairmont State.

Indiana (Pa.), which ranks No. 6 nationally in scoring defense at 59.6 ppg., survived comparative nail-biters against fellow PSAC members East Stroudsburg (76-68) and Slippery Rock (53-50) to earn a shot at its sixth regional crown.

Even though West Liberty scored more points in its regional tournament opener than IUP and Slippery Rock combined for in the semifinals, Hilltopper head coach Jim Crutchfield thinks the old clich about the irresistible force meeting the immovable object might be a bit overblown in this case.

“Both teams may be playing different styles,” Crutchfield said, “but it’s still the same game. You need to get stops when the other team has the ball and find a way to get good shots when you have it. If you’re committed to doing that every time you take the court, you’re probably going to give yourself a chance to win the game.”

Winning has certainly become a habit for both programs since Crutchfield took the reins at West Liberty and Joe Lombardi arrived at IUP.

Crutchfield, a West Liberty assistant before taking over the head coaching duties in 2004-05, leads all active NCAA men’s basketball coaches in winning percentage (239-44, .845) while winning four conference titles, three conference tournament titles and two regional crowns. If his Hilltoppers win Tuesday night, they’ll tie Kentucky Wesleyan’s NCAA Division II record of 127 victories in four consecutive seasons.

Lombardi inherited an IUP program battling NCAA probation when he came aboard seven years ago and won a total of just 19 games in his first two seasons. The former Pitt assistant has led the Crimson Hawks to a 129-29 record over the past five years, with five NCAA Tournament bids, four PSAC regular-season titles, a regional championship and a national runner-up finish in 2010.

The Crimson Hawks’ starting lineup features 6-1 senior Anthony Wells (11.5 ppg.), 5-10 senior Devante Chance (6.8 ppg.), 6-8 junior Marcel Souberbielle (10.8 ppg.), 6-5 junior Mathis Keita (13.3 ppg.) and 6-9 senior Josh Wiegand (6.6 ppg.). Scooter Renkin (12.2 ppg.), a 6-4 senior, provides instant offense off the bench.

Wells has been IUP’s leading scorer in all five postseason (PSAC and NCAA Tournament) games, averaging 16.2 ppg. in tournament action. He drained a team season-high 6 3-pointers in the regional quarterfinal win against East Stroudsburg.

Renkin has hit double-figures in both regional games while Souberbielle came up big with a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds) against Slippery Rock in the semifinals.

The veteran Hilltoppers start four 1,000-point scorers in 6-4 senior Alex Falk (20.8 ppg.), 6-0 junior Cedric Harris (16.9 ppg.), 6-6 senior Chris Morrow (10.5 ppg.) and 5-7 senior Tim Hausfeld (8.7 ppg.). The fifth starter, 6-4 sophomore C.J. Hester (12.5 ppg., 9.2 rpg.), scored his 900th point against Fairmont State on Sunday.

The winner of Tuesday’s regional championship game will advance to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight tournament March 28-30 at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky.