West Liberty set to play for regional title tonight

INDIANA, Pa. — When March rolls around, great teams will find a way to win. And for the West Liberty men’s basketball team, the term ‘survive and advance’ is one way to describe its journey so far.

During the Atlantic Regional Tournament, the Hilltoppers had to rally in the second half in both of their games to pull out victories against East Stroudsburg (quarterfinal) and Virginia State (semifinal) to advance to the Sweet 16.

“We were down against an East Stroudsburg team who can put up points in a hurry,” West Liberty coach Ben Howlett said. “And we found a way to kind of slow them down and our pressure to wear on them a little bit. Obviously with Virginia State, it wasn’t looking good and in the second half we were down nine and things weren’t going our way. But we switched to something we typically don’t do and we played in a zone in the last four minutes and threw them off a bit. We found a way to win that game.

“There’s no easy games at this point in the season. Every team is going to be a good basketball team and we just have to take this thing one game at a time.”

The Hilltoppers will take on Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Regional Championship game tonight at 7 at the Kovalchick Complex on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The Lakers’ journey to the Sweet 16 involved a battle against Fairmont State in the first round. Mercyhurst hit a 3-pointer with seven seconds left into overtime to defeat the Falcons, 63-60.

In the Lakers’ semifinal matchup, they knocked off No. 1 seed and host IUP, 75-65 to set up the matchup.

Quite the contrary to West Liberty, Mercyhurst’s style of play is to slow the pace of the game down and limit possessions. But, its defense is one of the strongest aspects.

While the Hilltoppers are the nation’s highest scoring team, Mercyhurst’s defense ranks second as it averages holding opponents to 60.5 points.

“I think (Sunday) was the first time I’ve seen them live,” Howlett said. “We watched film (Monday) and as coaches we watched film all of (Sunday night). The one thing that sticks out to us as a team is how good a defensive team they are. They are such a good defensive team. Good shots are tough to come by. But we have to run really good offense on both transition and on the half court setting. They present a challenge to us in rebounding because, obviously they’re so much bigger, more aggressive going to the offensive rebound than the previous two teams.

“Those are the two things we kind of emphasized is running good motion offense and making sure they don’t get second chance opportunities.”

The Lakers are led by senior Jason Massey, who averages 16.1 points per contest, while grabbing 6.8 rebounds.

Nelson Maxwell also averages in double figures tallying 10.8 points, while Patrick Smith almost averages a double-double. He averages 9.3 points and powers his way to have nine rebounds each night as well.

West Liberty can be just as good on the boards on the offensive end. It ranks seventh (14.40) in the category.

“We don’t have a true center, we don’t have anyone over 6-foot-7 on our team,” Howlett said. “I think that’s just a credit to our guys being extremely tough and going in there, battling, scrapping, clawing and doing anything they can to get a rebound. Eric Meininger and Dalton Bolon are just relentless. They’re not big and they play extremely hard. Hopefully they can get offensive rebounds going into Mercyhurst.”

This is the eighth Atlantic Regional championship game the Hilltoppers have played in with their last one coming in the 2015-16 season. They are 6-1 in previous matchups.

“It’s a really good feeling,” Howlett said about being in the Sweet 16. “Our guys have grinded out two impressive wins. I think with this group, we’re very happy with being here, but we’re not content. We want to play in that Elite Eight and we want to put ourselves in the position to play against the best Division II schools in the country. Again, we’re happy, but we’re not content with things.”