West Liberty coach Ben Howlett made his way to a courtside seat at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Kovalchick Convention & Athletic Complex on Sunday shortly after his team advanced to the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region final.

What he received for his trouble was an education on IUP.

“I think the first thing that comes to mind is how well-schooled their half-court defense is,” Howlett said. “They don’t make many mistakes on that side of the floor. They’re very fundamental. It’s going to be a challenge for us to get high-percentage shots.

“They’re all on the same page offensively,” he added. “I think they’re elite defensively.”

IUP wrapped up Sunday’s Atlantic Region semifinal games by holding Virginia Union to 25% shooting from the floor to emerge with a 64-50 victory. West Liberty used a 49-point second half earlier in the evening to race past Mercyhurst to the tune of an 86-72 win in its semifinal contest.

Top-seeded IUP (32-1) will now host No. 2 seed West Liberty (30-3) in the NCAA Atlantic Region final at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Indiana with a trip to the Elite Eight at stake.

The game features two of the nation’s top offensive and defensive teams. IUP is holding its opponents to an average of just 59.9 points per game, good for fifth in Division II nationally, while West Liberty is averaging 101.2 points per game – good for second in the country.

“They’re probably, I imagine, the best offensive team we’ve played this year and that certainly will present a challenge for us along those lines,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said of West Liberty.

Lombardi said he expects West Liberty to attempt to stretch the floor offensively and force his team to guard all five players on the perimeter. He added that he hasn’t gotten to review much game film on the Hilltoppers, but experience against PSAC foes with similar offensive sets – Mercyhurst and California University of Pennsylvania – should prove beneficial in preparing for the contest.

“It won’t be totally foreign for our defense, but we really have to make sure we can guard the 3-point line,” Lombardi said.

Bryce Butler, a junior guard at West Liberty and graduate of Latrobe, gets ready to make a move against Mercyhurst Sunday night in an Atlantic Region semifinal game at Indiana, Pa. Butler finished with a team-high 19 points to lead West Liberty to an 86-72 victory. (Cameron Horning/IUP Athletic Communications)

West Liberty is led by guard Bryce Butler, a Latrobe native, who is 13th in the nation with an average of 22.3 points per game.

The 6-foot-5 junior scored a team-high 19 points in the Hilltoppers’ regional semifinal victory against Mercyhurst. He scored a game-high 27 points in West Liberty’s 112-88 regional quarterfinal win against Pitt-Johnstown Saturday.

“I think he’s the best player in Division II,” Howlett said. “There’s really nothing he can’t do. He impacts the game on so many different levels. The best thing about him is he wants to win and I know he really wants to beat IUP on Tuesday.

“He’s a Pennsylvania kid,” Howlett added of Butler. “He grew up in Latrobe. I believe his mother went to IUP. I think he knows a lot of those guys on that team.”

Guards Christian Montague also scored 17 points against Mercyhurst, while Zach Rasile added 11 and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart graduate Dante Spadafora, a redshirt freshman, contributed eight.

Dante Spadafora, a freshman guard at West Liberty, puts up a shot against Mercyhurst Sunday night in an Atlantic Region semifinal in Indiana, Pa. West Liberty downed Mercyhurst, 86-72, to advance to Tuesday’s regional championship against IUP. (Cameron Horning/IUP Athletic Communications)

If the Hilltoppers are to win their first regional final since 2021, it will take a complete effort, Howlett said.

“Our program has been lucky enough to have been there multiple times,” he said of his program which is 6-3 all time in regional finals. “It would mean a lot to these players that have been here for a while.”

For IUP, which advanced to the Division II Final Four a year ago, a win Tuesday would be equally as meaningful.

“Every team that I coach it’s always extremely special to have that whole experience, to travel out to the Elite Eight and have that team spend more time together,” Lombardi said. “It becomes day in and day out you’re around people that you love and you care about and you really share a bond. You’re part of something bigger than itself.

“I told them (Sunday), ‘Eventually this thing comes to an end, whether it’s today or whatever or it’s 10 days from now, it’s over,’” he added. “Winning is fun and winning championships is fun, but the real joy is the journey and the day-to-day stuff you get to share together.”

Over the weekend, IUP shared plenty of joy.

The Crimson Hawks had to hang on for a 52-50 victory against Winston-Salem State in the quarterfinals Saturday, before a second-half surge brought a 14-point victory Sunday night.

Redshirt senior guard Dave Morris scored a team-high 16 points for IUP against Virginia Union, while backcourt mate Shawndale Jones, who played two years at North Hills before enrolling at Kiski Prep, scored 12 and sophomore Jaylen Stewart added 10.

Forward Tomiwa Sulaiman scored 20 points with 10 rebounds in IUP’s win against Winston-Salem, as Jones scored 11 points and Stewart contributed 10.

“We don’t expect to blow anyone out,” Lombardi said. “We’re not the ’78 Celtics. We’re just a good basketball team that has found a way to win 32 games so far. We’re not measuring the score, but we were happy to get away from Winston-Salem with a close win.

“Tonight we shot the ball a little bit better and was able to get some separation,” he added. “We’ve been a little bit streaky shooting the basketball.”

Lombardi said he is encouraged by his team’s play over the weekend.

“I was proud of the team’s grittiness, their competitiveness, their toughness to find a way to win even when you don’t shoot the ball,” he said. “Tonight, we played a little bit better and got some separation.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.