INDIANA, Pa. — West Liberty men’s basketball coach Ben Howlett wanted to be clear.
As if the statement his Hilltoppers made in holding top-seeded IUP to 30.2% shooting from the field, while Latrobe native Bryce Butler added 30 points and 7 rebounds, to emerge with a dominating 70-53 victory in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region final Tuesday night at Indiana’s Kovalchick Convention & Athletic Complex wasn’t sufficient enough.
“This next statement, I’m not being arrogant at all, we wanted these guys today,” Howlett said. “This is who we wanted to play. We wanted to play IUP on their home floor, and I think our guys wanted this game as well.
“I could tell in shootaround this morning that we meant business. I could tell these guys were dialed in. They weren’t blinking. They were just staring at me like they wanted to play at 10 a.m. in the shootaround.”
No. 2-seeded West Liberty (31-3) used a tough full-court press defense to knock off IUP (32-2), its third Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference foe of the regional tournament.
“We never got comfortable offensively,” said Crimson Hawks coach Joe Lombardi after his team played host to the Atlantic regional tournament for the fourth time in five seasons. “You can’t just impose your will on them defensively like we might some other teams. You have to score. When you don’t score, they get in transition. It creates fatigue. A lot of guys played a lot of minutes. They were playing hard.
“This team never lacked grit. It never lacked competitiveness. They stayed connected. I was proud of that.”
Junior 6-foot-8 forward Ethan Porterfield, a Sharon native, scored a team-high 22 points with 11 rebounds for IUP, which also received 13 points and 11 rebounds from forward Tomiwa Sulaiman and 12 points from guard Shawndale Jones.
“I just felt like shots wouldn’t fall,” said Jones, a graduate student, who played two years at North Hills before enrolling at Kiski Prep. “That’s what happens in a game sometimes. Shots don’t fall. We were playing defense and it felt like it wasn’t going in. We felt like it was going to happen in the second half, but unfortunately it didn’t.”
West Liberty advances to the Elite Eight for the seventh time in program history, which will be held in Evansville, Ind., beginning March 21. IUP was looking to make its second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight. The Crimson Hawks advanced to the Final Four a season ago, but fell to Augusta in the national semifinal.
“[Three] No. 1 seeds lost before they could even get into the Sweet 16 game,” Lombardi said. “It’s difficult. It’s not easy. We appreciate that.”
Over much of the final eight minutes of the first half Tuesday, West Liberty made things plenty difficult on IUP and took control of the game.
The Hilltoppers held the Crimson Hawks to just 1-of-10 shooting from the field over that time span and used a 14-7 scoring run to enter the second half with a 34-26 advantage.
Butler, who was named Atlantic Region MVP, led all scorers with 16 first-half points.
“I think we just played help defense in the gaps,” West Liberty guard Christian Montague said. “There were certain guys we weren’t helping off, but we helped each other off the drive and rotated and luckily they missed a few shots and we came down with the rebounds.”
IUP was never able to recover in the second half. The Crimson Hawks missed six of their first seven field-goal attempts to open the second half and were never able to cut their deficit to less than eight points.
“I think Bryce Butler showed today why he’s the best player in the country,” Howlett said. “I don’t even think it’s a question. He was unbelievable.”
Butler said he relished the chance to play a game close to home in front of more friends and family than usual.
“We’re the type of team that all 14 guys are just locked in at all times,” he said. “That’s kind of our motto. We’ve got shirts that say ‘team’ and that’s what we are.
“It’s kind of like a rivalry here over the last 10 to 15 years,” he added. “We kind of felt like we were one of the top teams in the region. We wanted to host, but there’s nothing better than beating the best team on their floor.”
IUP was ranked as the No. 1 team in Division II for much of the season. The Crimson Hawks’ run through the Atlantic Region included Lombardi winning his 400th career game Sunday night against Virginia Union.
Although IUP’s run ended short of where Jones expected, he said he was proud of his time in the Crimson Hawks program and what he and his teammates accomplished over the past two seasons.
“Everybody on this team could be a star anywhere else,” Jones said. “The things that we were able to accomplish, just relinquishing our ego and just focusing on the team, was something that they can’t take away from us. I feel grateful for my time here.”