There are six games standing in the way of West Liberty and a national championship. The first one begins Saturday as the No. 3-ranked Hilltoppers look to defend their Regional Title when they face East Stroudsburg in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament.
The Hilltoppers are coming off of both WVIAC regular season and tournament titles. WLU won the tournament title in an overtime thriller against No. 17 Charleston, 93-90, at the Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va. on March 3. Down three with eight seconds remaining, Tim Hausfeld broke his 10-miss streak and drained a 3-point bomb that sent the game into overtime. Then the nation’s best free throw percentage team went 8-of-9 from the line to win the championship in back-to-back seasons.
East Stroudsburg University will be making its second appearance in the NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Tournament in three years and the third in school history. The Warriors received the PSAC’s automatic bid by becoming the first No. 4 seed in 21 years to win the conference’s championship last weekend.
The two schools met in their season openers on November 12 in the Wolf’s Bus Lines Classic at Shippensburg, with West Liberty prevailing 96-92. Alex Falk scored 27 points and Cedric Harris had 22 in the win. Freshman Whis Grant scored 30 points in his collegiate debut and hit four three-pointers late in the second half for East Stroudsburg. The Warriors also got double-doubles from junior Duane Johnson (21 points, 10 rebounds) and senior Terrance King (18-11).
“We actually watched film of that game, and what I noticed was that we were all real tired,” Hausfeld said. “We hadn’t played with that kind of intensity in a game and you can’t match that intensity in practice.”
To keep pace with West Liberty, ESU will have to slow the Hilltoppers or continue one of the top scoring seasons in school history. The Warriors have scored more than 90 points in nine games and have won their last eight when scoring 90+. They scored more than 90 twice in their three PSAC Tournament games.
“East Stroudsburg has a great program,” coach Jim Crutchfield said. “They’re similar to W.V. Wesleyan and Charleston with their personnel.”
ESU, the second-highest scoring team in the PSAC with 79.7 points per game, has four players averaging at least 12 per night entering the NCAA Tournament in Grant (14.0), King (12.8), senior guard Russell Graham II (12.6), and Johnson (12.4).
Johnson, a first team All-PSAC East selection who was joined by King and Graham on the second team, leads the Warriors in minutes (32.8), is second in rebounding (6.1), assists (76) and blocks (26) and tied for second in steals (42). He averaged 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds last week and had 19 in the title game.
King was named the PSAC Tournament MVP after averaging 22.3 points and 11.3 rebounds. He had a career-high 32 points along with 10 rebounds at Kutztown, nine points and a career-high 15 rebounds against Mercyhurst and 26 points and nine boards at West Chester in the championship game. Defensively, King has 44 blocks on the season and is third in school history with 140 career blocks.
On the defensive side, ESU has forced 17.0 turnovers per game and has a +2.7 turnover margin, ranked 33rd in Division II. Graham (47), Grant (42) and Johnson (42) are the team’s leaders in steals and the Warriors are also 33rd in the nation in blocked shots with 4.1 per game, led by King and Johnson (26).
West Liberty counters with an offense that leads DII in scoring (102.8), free throw percentage (81.2) and assists per game (21.2), ranks second in three-pointers per game (10.6), 10th in field goal percentage (50.3) and 13th in three-point percentage (40.6). On the defensive end, they are second in steals per game (11.5) and turnover margin (+5.8).
“I feel like we’re a completely different team now [then from the first meeting],” WVIAC Freshman of the Year C.J. Hester said. “We didn’t have that much team chemistry. Now that we’ve gone a full season together, we play a lot more confidently. We’ve just really jelled well together this year.”
“Our players know each other a lot better now than they did in game one,” Crutchfield said. “I think we’re a lot better basketball team, unfortunately East Stroudsburg is a pretty good basketball team too.
“We’ve been focusing on East Stroudsburg all week, cause that’s what you’re suppose to do,” Crutchfield added. “If we can beat East Stroudsburg, we’ll go from there.”
Tip off for tonight’s game is at 6 p.m. in the ASRC.