The first 30 minutes of Tuesday night's NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championship game were pretty much what Jim Crutchfield expected but for the West Liberty head coach, the final 10 minutes were the stuff from which dreams are made.
Crutchfield's No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers delighted another standing room only crowd at the ASRC by outscoring No. 10-ranked Indiana (Pa.) by a whopping 29-8 over that stretch and racing away to an 86-63 victory.
It was the third consecutive Atlantic Region title for West Liberty (33-1) and the third straight double-digit win in this year's regional tournament. The Hilltoppers won their three regional games by a combined margin of 78 points.
"I just want to say how proud I am of these three seniors," Crutchfield said, as he was joined at the podium by Alex Falk, Chris Morrow and Tim Hausfeld. "They've played with so much pride and so much heart over the last four years, it's made my job a lot easier.
"That wood floor down there has become a second home to them. It's a little bit sad that this was the last game they'll ever play on it but the good news is that they went out with a win and they're not done playing yet."
West Liberty had jumped out quickly against the PSAC champions, hitting its first five shots from the floor and building a double-digit lead midway through the opening half before settling for a 45-35 halftime lead.
Despite the double-digit advantage, Crutchfield knew there was still plenty of work to be done.
"That's probably as nervous as I've ever been with a 10-point lead at halftime," he said. "IUP is an outstanding basketball team and they're really well-coached. They had some kids who were playing well and there was no doubt in my mind that they would make a run at us."
Crutchfield was right. The Crimson Hawks (26-6), playing in their fifth straight regional, came out firing when play resumed. A Mathis Keita free throw with 14:02 on the clock capped a 13-3 IUP run to forge the game's first tie, 48-48, since the opening three minutes and Crutchfield called a timeout.
"I thought we had gotten away from what we wanted to do a little bit," he said, "but the main thing we said was that we now had a 14-minute game and we needed to win that 14-minute game. We didn't really change anything. We just refocused on spreading the floor and getting back to doing what we want to do."
Morrow and Hausfeld responded by wrapping 3-point bombs around a driving layup by the Hawks' Anthony Wells to put WLU ahead to stay. The teams traded baskets for the next few possessions before the Hilltoppers broke the game wide open.
Hausfeld's third 3-pointer of the half – this one from nearly 30 feet – ignited a quick 10-0 burst that turned a 57-55 edge into a 67-55 lead with 8:50 left and IUP never recovered.
"I thought we played with good poise and good presence but give West Liberty credit. They were excellent tonight," said IUP head coach Joe Lombardi. "They made some big threes, we had a couple of empty possessions and the next thing you know, we go from being tied to being down 12 points."
Falk – the tournament's leading scorer –paced six double-figure scorers for the Hilltoppers with 20 points. Morrow added 18 points and 6 rebounds with Hausfeld and Shawn Dyer chipping in with a dozen points each. Cedric Harris had 11 points and C.J. Hester had 10 points and a team-high 7 rebounds.
Keita and Scooter Renkin led Indiana with 18 and 16 points, respectively, while Marcel Souberbielle added a dozen.
Falk, Morrow and Harris represented West Liberty on the All-Tournament Team with Keita and Souberbielle rounding out the 5-man honor roll. Morrow was named Most Outstanding Player.
"I was really surprised to get Most Outstanding Player," Morrow said. "We all contributed. Timmy hit some huge 3-pointers today, Alex was everywhere like he is every game and I got a couple of blocks to keep them from scoring. It's a great honor and I'll take it but I think it's more of a team award for all of us."
Having punched their third straight ticket to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight championship tournament – this year's Elite Eight is set for March 28-30 at legendary Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. –Crutchfield and his seniors can't wait to get back on the court.
"We're excited to be going back to the Elite Eight," Crutchfield said, "but we're not as excited about going back as we are about getting another opportunity to go back and win. Last year we played really well to get out of the regional but I thought we didn't play our best game – and I certainly didn't coach my best game – when we got to Kentucky.
"It's not often you get a second or third chance to accomplish something really special so when you do, you want to make the most of it."
X The Hilltoppers will be the only team playing in its third straight Elite Eight next weekend. Bellarmine and Alabama-Huntsville lost in their tries for a third consecutive regional championship Tuesday night.
X West Liberty will play Central Region champion Winona State, Minn. (27-7) in the Elite Eight quarterfinals on March 28. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. at Freedom Hall.
X Winona State upset No. 4 Minnesota State, 76-73, in Tuesday's Central Regional championship game
X The Hilltoppers' 33rd win tied the school single-season record set by West Liberty's 2011 Final Four team
X WLU is now 12-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament play and a perfect 11-0 at the ASRC
X West Liberty is 78-1 in its last 79 games at the ASRC, dating back to 2008
X The Hilltoppers have tied Kentucky Wesleyan's NCAA Division II record of 127 wins in four consecutive seasons
X Falk passed 2011 All-American Corey Pelle to take over 5th place on the WLU career scoring list with 1,957 points
X Harris became the 43rd member of West Liberty's 1,000-Point Club with 1,004 points as a Hilltopper. The junior guard has 1,576 points as a collegian, after scoring 572 points as a freshman at Wheeling Jesuit
X The Hilltoppers are now 142-5 (.966) under Crutchfield when shooting 50 percent or better from the floor – including a perfect 24-0 mark this year