With 1:03 remaining in the Atlantic Region championship game, Alex Falk hit a 3-point bomb that put the final nail in Shaw’s coffin. The Hilltoppers were up by 12 points and there was nothing the Bears could do to get back in the game.
Then the surreal idea came over all 1,174 fans at the ASRC: the West Liberty men’s basketball team was heading back to the Elite Eight.
But will the ending be different this time around?
Rewind one year. The No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers just won their 32nd straight game and John Wolosinczuk was climbing on top of press row to hold up the Atlantic Region championship trophy for all to see. It would have been crazy to think that he would not be holding up another championship trophy 10 days later.
But sometimes crazy things happen. And when BYU-Hawaii beat West Liberty in the Final Four, few thought the Hilltoppers, who would be losing four senior starters, would make a similar run the following year.
But sometimes crazier things happen.
Here we are, one year later, and the No. 3-ranked Hilltoppers are just three games away from being national champions.
And you want to know something even crazier then just the idea of that? I like the Hilltoppers’ chances of becoming national champions this year better then I did last season.
Call me crazy, but this team right now is playing basketball at a high, if not the highest, level possible.
Look at West Liberty’s past two games. The Hilltoppers beat W.V. Wesleyan for the fourth consecutive time this year with a 99-69 stomping. To beat a team four times in one season is a hard enough task on its own, but to score 99 points on the best scoring defense in the WVIAC? That’s pretty impressive. And consider the fact that these two teams just met a little over a week ago in the WVIAC tournament semifinal where the Hilltoppers managed a 87-77 victory in a highly contested battle. The score was definitely not indicative of how close that game really was.
Then there was Tuesday night’s 89-78 win against No. 7-ranked Shaw. Alex Falk, West Liberty’s leading scorer, did not score a single point in the first half of play and the Hilltoppers were only down one, 43-42, at intermission.
West Liberty led by as many as 10 points on three different occasions, but the Bears were able to get back in it with some easy lay ups. And I mean easy. As soon as a Hilltopper player would shoot the ball, Alvin Malkin, the Atlantic Region Player of the Year, would race down towards Shaw’s basket and catch a half court pass to put in the uncontested lay up.
Coach Jim Crutchfield called Shaw one of, if not the most talented team in the nation and despite Falk’s first half shortcomings and the team giving up easy lay ups, the Hilltoppers still won by 11. Eliminate those West Liberty setbacks and the Hilltoppers might have won by 30 points for the third straight game.
WLU has a lot of momentum heading into its Elite Eight matchup against Stonehill College on March 21 at noon at the Bank of Kentucky Center in Highland Heights, Ky. I have a feeling this train isn’t going to stop until its conductor is holding up the national championship trophy.