West Liberty has its eyes on the prize
\WEST LIBERTY – It may be sweet to be elite, but the West Liberty men’s basketball team wants to be the last NCAA Division II team standing.
The Hilltoppers (31-3) punched their ticket to the Elite Eight last week with a 70-53 shellacking of homestanding and top-seeded IUP in the Atlantic Regional championship game. The Crimson Hawks had only one loss prior to that contest and were ranked No. 2 in the nation.
“The Atlantic Regional was a really good showing for our guys. We were in three hard-fought battles with three really good Pennsylvania teams,” West Liberty head coach Ben Howlett said. “I thought our guys were really locked in from the get-go. We approached the regional, like we always do, one game at a time, but I think they really wanted to win.”
West Liberty received the No. 2 seed in next week’s event inside the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. The Hilltoppers, winners of 16 straight since a loss to Ohio County rival Wheeling University, in late January, will face the University of New Haven (23-10), the No. 7 seed. That game tips at 3:30 p.m. (Eastern Time).
The Chargers won the East Region as the No. 4 seed and are out of the Northeast-10 Conference. They are entering their first-ever Elite Eight.
The trip to the Elite Eight is the seventh for the Black-and-Gold, which has made four appearances in the national semifinals (2011, 2013, 2014, 2016) and went to the national championship game once in 2014 (a loss to Central Missouri, 84-77). This is the second Elite Eight appearance under Howlett, the other coming in a loss in 2021.
Motivation for some of the Hilltoppers came in the form of a one-and-done in the 2022 Atlantic Regional Tournament when they thought they had a pretty good team.
“Some of these guys were on that team last year and we felt we just didn’t play well that night,” Howlett admitted. “That loss was in the back of our minds and we wanted to come out with a better showing. We were very well prepared and stayed locked in.
“Being the only team there for a couple of days allowed us to be together and have fun together,” he added. “I think we learned something about each other in that time.”
West Liberty is led by junior standout Bryce Butler who was recently named to the Top 25 Watchlist for the Bevo Francis Award, which was announced by Small College Basketball and the National Awards Committee.
Butler has been a dominating force for the Hilltoppers all season. He was named the D2SIDA Atlantic Region and Mountain East Conference Player of the Year for the second straight season. Butler has been the team’s leading scorer in every postseason game, including three double-doubles and 30 points in the regional championship against top-seeded IUP.
On the season, the 6-5 Latrobe, Pa., native is averaging 22.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. He has posted 10 double-doubles and has scored a team-high in 26 of the 34 games played. Butler was also named an Academic All-American last week.
“Just from a personal standpoint and not even talking about basketball, Bryce does everything the right way,” Howlett praised. “He gets all A’s. He treats people right and jokes around and that, but when you get him on the court it is like a Jeckle and Hyde thing. He impacts the game on so many levels.
“He’s our leader and our guys know that when Bryce talks, they had better listen.”
West Liberty held the Crimson Hawks to 30% shooting and back-to-back Atlantic Region and Butler, the two-time Mountain East Conference Player of the Year, had 30 points in the 70-53 victory at IUP. In the opening round, WLU handled Pitt-Johnstown, 112-88, then bounced back from a slow start to surge past third-seeded Mercyhurst, 86-72.
According to Howlett, Butler was a little extra motivated in the Atlantic Regional finals.
“He’s a Pennsylvania kid and his mother is a graduate of IUP,” the coach offered. “Latrobe and Indiana are only about 40 minutes apart, so he had a little more motivation than usual. I thought he put the team on his back that night.”
The coach was also appreciative of the fan support they received.
“It was fun to cut those nets down the other night in front of a lot of our fans. We had a really good following out there,” Howlett said of the Atlantic Regional. “Not only were they there, but I thought they were loud and they impacted the game.”
In addition to Butler, all four remaining starters are averaging in double figures. Christian Montague, a 6-1 junior transfer from Walsh, and Malik McKinney, a 6-3 senior transfer from Seton Hill, lead the group with 12-point norms. Steve Cannady, a 6-1 graduate student who transferred from Mercyhurst, scores 10.9 and Ben Sarson, a 6-6 sophomore from Pittsburgh Central Catholic, adds 10.8.
As a team, the Hilltoppers average 100.1 points per night, while giving up 80.6.
When Howlett goes to his bench, he really goes to his bench. He will send in a second unit that is nearly as good as the starting five.
“There’s not much of a drop-off. Both groups bring a lot of effort to the table,” he noted. “I thought that the second group gave us a really big lift. We got in an 8-0 hole when they went in. I think we were tied when they came out.”
Off the bench, Zach Rasile, a 6-1 sophomore from McDonald, Oh., chips in 9.2 and is deadly from long range. Alek West, a 6-4 junior transfer from Ohio Dominican, adds 6.5 and Chaz Hinds, a 6-8 junior from Indianapolis, averages 6 a game. They are joined by red-shirt freshman Dante Spadafora, a 6-0 guard from Pittsburgh Our Lady of Sacred Heart High School, and 6-7 junior Finley Woodward from Spire Academy.
The Hilltoppers shoot nearly 50 percent (49.6) from the field and 38.1 from downtown (423-1110). They have attempted almost twice as many treys as the opposition. West Liberty pulls down 37.5 rebounds a game and shoots 74.7 percent from the free-throw line.
“They are a little non-traditional in terms of they will play a lot of defenses. They will play some zone,” Howlett said. “Offensively, they don ‘t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t play a lot of guys, but they also don’t get away from what they do. They are very well-coached and have a pair of really good guards that can score in a variety of ways.”
One problem the Chargers pose is they have a 7-footer in the middle, something West Liberty rarely sees.
“He impacts the game, not by scoring but by blocking shots and making teams alter their shots,” Howlett pointed out. “He’s a unique big guy for our level.”
According to reports, the East Regional continues to baffle everyone, with nary a repeat champion in more than six years. For the Chargers, the 10th time was the charm. They survived the East Region gamut with the NE10’s best scoring defense which was also a top-10 mark in all D-II men’s basketball, and the best remaining scoring defense in the tournament.
Like most coaches, Howlett isn’t looking past New Haven but does know who is in the bracket.
Nova Southeastern, coach from former West Liberty bench boss Jim Crutchfield, earned the No. 1 seed. The D-II Men’s Elite Eight began seeding the final eight teams in Evansville in 2016. Since that process started, the Sharks are the first team to earn consecutive No. 1 overall seeds.
It is also the second-straight year the Sharks have entered undefeated. It’s pretty remarkable what Crutchfield has done since taking over in 2017-18. The Sharks have reached the Elite Eight in 2019, 2022 and now 2023, were a No. 2 seed in the South when the 2020 season shut down, and never played the 2021 season.
“It’s neat. We’re probably the only two teams in the country that play that up-tempo game,” Howlett added. “Obviously, I played for Coach Crutchfield and I coached under him so I have a lot of respect for him.”
Howlett also praised the work of assistant coaches, Dr. Aaron Huffman, Michael Lamberti and Connor Harr.
“They work really hard. We spend a lot of time together game-planning and stuff like that,” Howlett said. “A lot of stuff they do is behind the scenes but they are extremely important to this program.
“I get the praise when we win and I get the blame when we lose, but they deserve some recognition for what they do.”
The Hilltoppers, according to Howlett, will leave campus at 7 a.m. Sunday by bus and stop along the way for a practice session. They have some tournament obligations Monday in Evansville.