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West Liberty headed Elite 8 for fourth straight year

Updated: Wednesday, March 19 2014, 12:16 PM EDT

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. – The No. 7-ranked West Liberty University men's basketball team won its fourth consecutive NCAA Division II Atlantic Region title Tuesday night with a businesslike 89-82 victory against No. 2 East Stroudsburg at the Warriors' jam-packed Koehler Fieldhouse.
Atlantic Region Player of the Year Cedric Harris had 21 points while C.J. Hester and Keene Cockburn each worked the paint for double-doubles as Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (29-3), broke up a see-saw affair late in the first half and never trailed again.
There were five ties and six lead changes in the opening half, but a classic West Liberty surge covering the final three minutes of the half put East Stroudsburg (30-2) on a comeback trail that proved too steep to climb.
Ironically, the momentum shift came just after a Rasheed Moore 3-pointer had given ESU its largest lead of the game, 37-31, as the clock ticked under the 3-minute mark.
The Hilltoppers, who had missed all but one of their 3-point tries during the first 17 minutes, suddenly dropped in three straight in a 71-second span. Hester, who had sparked the barrage with a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner, then capped the 11-0 blitz with a strong inside move for a 42-37 West Liberty lead.
The Black and Gold carried a 44-39 lead into intermission and picked up where they had left off when play resumed. A Cockburn 3-pointer made it 51-42 less than three minutes into the second half, forcing a Warrior timeout.
East Stroudsburg was unable to put a run together against a hard-working Hilltoppers defense and WLU slowly eased away to its largest lead of the night, 72-59, on a Shawn Dyer 3-pointer with 9:10 remaining.
Two-time All-Region guard Whis Grant heated up down the stretch, scoring 13 of his team-high 19 points in the final 7 minutes, to give West Liberty fans a few nervous moments.
The ESU crowd roared its approval when Grant drew the fifth foul on Harris and drained both free throws to make it a one-possession game, 82-79, with 2:08 remaining.
The Warriors got a stop at the other end, giving them a chance to tie with a 3-pointer but it didn't happen. Grant misfired on a mid-range jumper and the 6-4 Hester not only won the rebounding battle, he fired a half-court outlet pass to a streaking Devin Hoehn for an 84-79 lead with 1:31 to go.
Moore then missed a hurried 3-pointer for East Stroudsburg with Cockburn clearing the rebound. After running time off the shot clock, Dyer knifed into the lane for the back-breaker, a twisting runner that put West Liberty up, 86-79, with a minute remaining. The Hilltoppers closed out the win at the charity stripe.
Harris finished with 21 points, four assists and four rebounds before fouling out but West Liberty wasn't lacking for standout performances on this night. Hester had a monster game with 16 points and 17 rebounds while Cockburn more than made his presence felt with 17 points, a dozen rebounds and blocked blocked shots. Dyer rounded out the double-figure scorers with 16 points.
In a game featuring two of the most potent offenses in Division II, it was the Hilltoppers defense that made the difference. West Liberty held East Stroudsburg to 34 percent shooting (30 of 88) on the night, including a 14 of 45 (31 percent) showing in the second half.
Grant's 19 points paced the hosts but the junior star was just 6-of-21 from the floor. Moore finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds while Will Brown and Lamont Tillery added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
The Hilltoppers will make their fourth straight NCAA Elite Eight appearance in Evansville, Ind. next week. They will meet defending national champion Drury, Mo. (28-3) March 26 in the quarterfinals at the Ford Center. The No. 8-ranked Panthers outlasted Michigan Tech, 71-57, in Tuesday's Midwest Regional final.
GAME NOTES
X Harris was voted Tournament MVP and Hester joined him on the All-Tournament Team. Grant, IUP's Marcel Souberbielle and Mark Thomas of Livingstone rounded out the All-Tourney squad
X While the Hilltoppers have drawn national attention with a 61-2 home record during the past four seasons, they are now 48-3 in games played on their opponents' home floor during that span
X Tuesday's loss snapped a 20-game home winning streak for East Stroudsburg, which hadn't lost a game at Koehler Fieldhouse all year
X West Liberty is 16-5 all-time in NCAA Tournament play and has won 12 straight regional contests
X The Hilltoppers are the first team ever to win a road game in Atlantic Region tournament play. Coming into Tuesday's title tilt, host teams had been 19-0 since the region was formed in the 2008-09 season
X Hester's 17 rebounds pushed his career total to 891. In just three seasons, he's already risen to No. 4 on the school's career rebounding list

West Liberty headed Elite 8 for fourth straight year


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