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Three more national stat titles for West Liberty men

WEST LIBERTY — The sound of power tools echoed down the nearly-deserted hall outside the office of West Liberty University’s men’s basketball coach Ben Howlett earlier this week.

It’s that time of year.

In what has become a summer ritual for the three-time defending Mountain East Conference champions, three more NCAA Division II national statistical championship plaques were being added to the impressive wall display.

The newest additions have plenty of company. This year’s haul brings the Hilltoppers’ total to 44 over the past decade – by far the most of any NCAA Division II program. It’s the 15th consecutive season West Liberty has led the nation in at least one statistical category – also a record.

Howlett’s Hilltoppers led all 300-plus NCAA D2 teams in scoring for the 12th time in the last 15 years and also received a plaque for ranking No. 1 in scoring margin, outscoring their opponents by an average of 24.0 points a night. The third plaque belongs to junior point guard Luke Dyer, who led the nation with a near-record 5.90 Assist/Turnover Ratio.

That’s not all. The Black and Gold also led the nation in total steals while finishing in the Top 10 in no less than 18 separate categories, ranging from field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage to assists, turnovers forced, turnover margin, rebounds and offensive rebounds.

“The plaques are great but those stats – assists, turnover margin, offensive rebounds, shooting percentage -are the things you have to do well if you want to win basketball games and our players have totally bought into that,” Howlett said.

“It’s all about winning games.”

Winning games is something the Hilltoppers have done better than any other NCAA Division II team for more than a decade. In fact, West Liberty led all NCAA men’s basketball teams – regardless of division – in winning percentage over the past decade (2011-20).

The Hilltoppers checked in at 298-35 (.895) with Lincoln Memorial (Tenn.) second at 284-41 (.874). Gonzaga led all NCAA Division I programs and was third overall at 308-51 (.858).

Dyer’s individual national stat title is a bit of an outlier in the West Liberty record book. While WLU has produced a dozen NCAA D2 All-Americans and three National Players of the Year over the past 10 seasons, Dyer is only the second Hilltopper player to lead the nation in any category.

Seger Bonifant, a two-time Basketball Times National Player of the Year, led the nation in 3-Point Field Goal Percentage as a junior in 2014-15. Now playing professionally in Europe, Bonifant went on to set the NCAA D2 career record for 3-Point Field Goal Percentage (374-712, .525).

A three-year starter, Dyer’s 5.90 Assist/Turnover Ratio not only led the nation, it went into the books as the second-highest ratio in NCAA basketball history. According to the 2019-20 NCAA Record Book, it’s just the seventh time an NCAA men’s basketball player has finished a season with an Assist/Turnover Ratio above 5.00.

“Luke may not get as much attention as some of the big scorers in our league,” Howlett said, “but he has been a huge part of our success over the past three seasons. He’s an incredible competitor who takes great care of the basketball and makes everyone around him better. When you have a point guard who literally goes weeks between turnovers, you have something special.”

After riding a lengthy late-season surge to their 11th straight NCAA Tournament bid only to see the NCAA and COVID-19 bring everything crashing to a halt less than 24 hours before the NCAA Atlantic Regional was set to tip off at the ASRC, Howlett says his Hilltoppers want to pick up where they left off.

“We felt like we were getting better and better as the season went on,” Howlett said. “We had won 21 of our last 22 games, became the first MEC team ever to sweep the regular-season and tournament championships and really had things moving in the right direction with the regional coming back to our place when all of a sudden, it was gone. That was pretty devastating.

“The hard part for me has been missing my guys. I can’t wait to see things start to open back up so we can get back together safely on campus. I’ve got a great bunch of guys who have been through a lot together. After the way last season ended, I think they’re looking at this season as unfinished business.”

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