Here we go. The home stretch. The final straw. The last hurrah. The D2 basketball regular season winds down this weekend and basketball fans can expect plenty of excitement as teams jostle for position in their respective conferences.
There will be blood.
OK, that was a little ominous. Yet, there’s no better way to describe Saturday’s matchup between BR-6 West Liberty and BR-19 Wheeling Jesuit — a game that will likely determine the Mountain East Conference regular season champion. And not just on the men’s side.
Both the men’s and women’s West Liberty squads have a lot on the line this weekend when they take on their mortal enemies; teams from a school located just nine miles away, or, “Down the hill from us,” according to Sports Information Director Matt Watson. (Literally. West Liberty sits atop a hill, just nine miles away from Wheeling Jesuit, which rests at the hill’s base.)
Let’s start with the men.
The game against Wheeling Jesuit looms large, but head coach Jim Crutchfield isn’t even thinking about it. Well, he is, just not in the way you’d expect. Why?
“We have a game tonight,” he said in an interview over the phone Thursday morning. “That game on Saturday won’t have as heavy implications if we don’t win tonight!”
Indeed, West Liberty takes on BR-285 Urbana University at home this evening at 7:30 p.m., as dangerous a game as any.
For those unaware, Mountain East Conference men's basketball looks like this: Wheeling Jesuit sits in the top seed with a 19-1 record, West Liberty sits at number two with an 18-2 record. The Cardinals already defeated the Hilltoppers once this season in a 106-83 blowout on Jan. 21, so another loss would all but end West Liberty’s chance at snagging the conference regular season title and, more pivotally, an opportunity to host the MEC Tournament when it starts next week.
“We’ve got a pretty smart group of guys,” Crutchfield said. “They know that if they lose tonight’s game the game on Saturday wont have the same meaning.”
Even so, distractions are everywhere; from the TV cameras setting up in the gymnasium, to the extra bleachers brought in to accommodate a much higher attendance.
“All of those things are happening, but we can’t lower our guard,” Crutchfield continued. “We’re going to play the number one ranked school in the nation in a few days, but I keep asking our guys, ‘How are you going to play tonight?’ I’m trying to brainwash them a little bit.”
Of course, it helps to be playing a school like Urbana, dead last in the MEC with just two total wins under its belt. The last time West Liberty faced them the result was a 133-95 massacre — the highest point total for the Hilltoppers this season.
But upsets do happen. A loss would sour the Hilltopper’s narrative; a team that, 12 seasons earlier, won just four games but has since rejuvenated under Coach Crutchfield tenure thanks to smart recruiting and the integration of a high-octane offensive attack.
The result? Six straight conference championships, four Elite Eight appearances, one National Championship appearance (in 2014), a slew of Final Four appearances, and the best winning percentage of any college basketball team (in any division) since 2010: .919 (182-16).
Needless to say, expectations have risen to absurd heights for the Hilltoppers over the last few years.
Senior forward Mike Lamberti drives to the hoop in an 89-72 win over Charleston Jan 28 (Courtesy of West Liberty Athletics)
“There was a time when we would lose by a few points and people would be ecstatic that we almost won,” Crutchfield said. “Now, we’ve won 24 games and nobody is talking about it. We’re 24-2, 18-2 in the conference and 15-0 at home, but if we don’t get win a conference title people are going to be disappointed.
“Sometimes those kind of expectations bother me, especially when they creep in on the players. We’re winning games, but the boys just aren’t as happy as I think they should be because [winning] is expected. But I suppose that’s a lot better than losing every game.”
The fact that Crutchfield’s squad is this close to winning the MEC is a miracle in and of itself. Injuries forced the team to play a majority of the season with just one returning starter — Seger Bonifant, who, luckily, happens to be the defending National Player of the Year and one of the best scorers in D2 Men’s Basketball — he currently averages 24.7 points per contest. The squad even leads the league in scoring (101.7 points per game).
“We lost some really good players from last year,” Crutchfield explained. “And we lost some of our guys this year to injuries … I’ve been proud of the team’s work ethic. We dropped a couple of games at midseason — including one to Wheeling Jesuit — by about 15 or 20 points, but they regrouped and haven’t lost since.
“I’m proud to be in a position to square off against the top team in the country.”
Just so long as the team takes care of business tonight.
Now that's the mens' team. The women's team story is just as compelling.
Senior guard Liz Flowers finishes a drive in the 'Toppers 77-68 win over Notre Dame College back in November (Courtesy of West Liberty Athletics)
Like Crutchfield, Lynn Ullom, head coach of the BR-27 West Liberty women's basketball team, isn’t focused so much on Saturday’s bout with BR-51 Wheeling Jesuit as he is sweating over BR-234 Urbana. The Lady Blue Knights are better than their male counterparts with a 10-10 conference record.
Oh sure, the Hilltoppers, ahem, easily topped them 95-79 when the two squads met in November, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be an easy out.
“We can’t overlook them at all,” Ullom said from his cell phone Thursday morning. “I know it’s cliché to say, but we’re taking it one game at a time. We’re not looking past Urbana. Obviously we’re thinking about Saturday’s game, and a loss tonight doesn’t change things much, but we’re looking at the bigger picture. It’s not just about regular season championships. These games have regional implications as well.”
Right now, MEC women's basketball looks like this: West Liberty sits atop the standings with an 18-2 conference record, tied with Wheeling Jesuit. The Hilltoppers defeated the Cardinals 69-64 on Jan. 21, so the tiebreaker means a loss to Urbana wouldn’t derail West Liberty’s conference chances.
But who wants to lose to a .500 ball club this late in the season?
“We’re just going to make sure we get the win tonight,” said senior forward Kierra Simpson. “We need to go out there, play hard and get the win. We haven’t talked too much about Saturday, yet, but we know the importance of the game. We know what the next two wins could mean to us.”
The Lady Hilltoppers have straight up balled-their-minds-out this season. Simpson has had a career year, averaging a double double in points (14 per game) and rebounds (13.1 per game). She even leads the nation in field goal percentage (.661). Liz Flowers leads the team in scoring (19.3 ppg) and is just 60 points shy of hitting the 2,000 career point milestone. And Kailee Howe leads the league in assists (10.1 per game), scores in double digits every night (13.6 ppg) and paces the team in steals (1.7 per game).
West Liberty senior forward Kierra Simpson with the scoop in a 30-point win over West Virginia Wesleyan Feb. 18 (courtesy of West Liberty Athletics
Is this the year the team goes all the way and wins a championship?
“I definitely believe we have the best opportunity to win a championship this season,” Simpson said. “We have a great combination of players and work ethic. We’re all on the same page. We want the same goal. And we’re a lot closer to one another.”
Ullom attributes this season’s success to sharper defense.
“We don’t do anything differently year in and year out,” he said. We’ve been number one in 10 of the last 13 or so years. But this season we’ve passed the ball exceptionally well and our defense is a lot better. Last year we had a severe rash of injuries for about a month that hurt us pretty bad. When we were at full strength se only lost two games and that was to California (Pa.), who won the national championship.”
As for tonight’s game — and Saturday’s — Ullom remains confident his team will arrive focused and prepared to battle.
“This isn’t new,” he said. “We’ve been here before. We’re relying on experience to get the job done.”