IUP BASKETBALL: Hot-shooting Hilltoppers deal Hawks season-ending loss
WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. -- The math is simple: 3 is greater than 2.
IUP couldn't match West Liberty's firepower from 3-point range and lost to the Hilltoppers, 86-63, in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championship game Tuesday night.
No. 1-ranked West Liberty (33-1), made 13 of 25 3-point attempts to IUP's 5 of 19, and the Hilltoppers claimed their third straight regional title and a berth in next week's Elite Eight in Louisville, Ky.
"When they're making 3s like that you have to match it or you're going to fall behind," IUP coach Joe Lombardi said after his 10th-ranked team closed the season with a 26-6 record. "There's no other substitute. The last time I checked 3s are more than 2s It's a hard game to stay in unless you make a lot of shots to match them."
A prolific offensive team, West Liberty entered the championship game ranked first in the nation in scoring offense at 103.4 points per game, first in field goal percentage at .524 and fifth in 3-point percentage at .414. IUP held the Hilltoppers under their season scoring average but couldn't stop an efficient offense that shot at a .534 clip, including 52 percent from 3-point range.
All the other numbers were relatively even. Each team made 18 2-point field goals, IUP on 42 attempts and West Liberty on 33, and the Crimson Hawks made one more free throw than West Liberty (12-11). IUP also led the rebounding by one, 37-36, and each team committed 10 turnovers. But the Hawks left points on the court by missing some inside shots and free throws.
"It's tough when they hit deep shots like that," IUP senior guard Scooter Renkin said.
"You miss one shot on your end and they hit a 3, and you come down and want to have a good possession and miss and you're down six. They can put points on the board. I think we were flying around on defense, but they move so well."
West Liberty hit IUP with three barrages of deadly 3s. The Hilltoppers opened the game by hitting four on their first five possessions en route to a 14-8 lead. After IUP pulled within two at 21-19, they hit two more in succession during a quick 8-0 burst that restored a double-digit lead.
Then, after IUP erased all of a 10-point halftime deficit while West Liberty was in the midst of an 0-for-10 slump from long range, the Hilltoppers broke out of it by hitting five straight 3s.
After IUP forged a tie at 48 with 14 minutes left, West Liberty emerged from a timeout, started its last barrage and went on to outscore the Crimson Hawks 38-15 the rest of the way. IUP hung close for three minutes during the last outburst and trailed by only two at 57-55 with 11 minute to play, but West Liberty took control with a quick 9-0 burst that stretched the margin to 12. IUP scored only eight points in the last 8:45.
"We don't hit the panic button," West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said of taking the timeout when the score was tied. "We had a couple possessions where we dribbled into traffic, and we normally don't dribble into traffic, and they went the other way. I told them we're not going to do that anymore; we need to spread the floor a little more; and at this point we have to play a 14-minute game and have to win a 14-minute game now.
"We were not going to change all the things we do. We were going to play man-to-man defense, press when the opportunity was there, spread the floor and run motion offense and play good team basketball."
That's what West Liberty did against an IUP team that was basically playing with a six-man rotation and running out of gas.
"They really, really played well," Lombardi said. "They did it from the beginning. Obviously the 13 out of 25 3s, you have trouble overcoming that. They play hard, they play together, and I don't know if they'll lose to anybody if they continue to play as they did tonight."
IUP entered the game with a defense allowing only 59.6 points per game.
"The score was not an indication of the game," Crutchfield said. "You look at that and think it was an easy win. … Whenever it was 48-48, that's the type of game it really was. That 23-point win is deceptive.
"IUP plays as hard on defense as anybody we've played in a long time. They guard you on the perimeter and it's hard to get to the basket. It's tough getting anything outside, and you think you can get something inside, but they do a good job with their rotations. Fortunately for us we opened up with some 3s."
Five West Liberty players made at least two 3s, and another made one. Six scored in double figures, led by tournament MVP Chris Morrow (18) and all-tournament selections Alex Falk (20) and Cedric Harris (11).
IUP juniors Marcel Souberbielle and Mathis Keita were named to the all-tournament team. Keita finished with 18 points, and Souberbielle scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Souberbielle finished the tournament with 43 points and 22 rebounds in three games.
"We had a lot of guys play well," Lombardi said. "Marcel just battled on both ends and played as well as anybody in the tournament on both ends, I'm sure."
Despite the loss, IUP had a successful season. The Crimson Hawks won their third Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship in four years and their fourth straight PSAC West title, compiled a fifth straight 20-win season and earned a fifth straight NCAA tournament bid. Only six of the 64 teams in the field made it to the last five NCAA tournaments.
"We accomplished more than anybody thought we would," senior point guard Anthony Wells said. "I feel like the odds were against us since the beginning of the year. We stuck with the process and continued to prove people wrong. It still stings to lose this game like this, so I can't say that I'm happy we got this far because I'm a winner and want to win. But credit goes to West Liberty. We did lose to a very good team."
IUP's accomplishments came despite starting the season without a player who had averaged double figures during a college season.
"As a coach," Lombardi said, "anytime you don't have a guy back that scored more than eight points you don't really look at it and say, 'Boy, we can win a championship.' We talk about building a championship; you don't win one. And these guys, along the way, brick by brick, the way they approached things, the way they worked, the way they got connected and came together, they built a championship team."