Men’s basketball season ends at NCAA tournament

By Chad Richards, Contributing Writer
 
After the surprise announcement at the end of last season that the legendary head coach Jim Crutchfield would not be returning to West Liberty for the 2017-18 season and that his assistant and former player Ben Howlett was set to take over, people had doubts about the program. Could West Liberty still be the basketball powerhouse it had been without the guidance of Crutchfield? 

At the end of this season, it’s clear the doubters have been proven wrong as the team went 26-4 overall and 20-2 in conference, earning several team awards along the way, including the MEC regular season title, another team scoring title with over 106 points per game and another appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
 

The Hilltoppers started the season in typical West Liberty fashion, winning their first six games by an average of 39 points. Their next two games with Notre Dame College and Shepherd both ended in wins for West Liberty, but not without strong efforts from the team. 

The team needed to quiet a late run by Notre Dame that pulled them as close as five points in the second half and overcame some hot shooting early in the road matchup against the Rams; at one point, Shepherd led the Toppers 21-5 around five minutes into the game.

The 8-0 start gave West Liberty sole possession of first place in the Mountain East Conference going into what many people thought would be a tough test of a game for Howlett’s Hilltoppers: Fairmont State

To complicate matters further, the game was being played in the ASRC, just hours after winter commencement earlier that day. Though people wondered if the Hilltoppers would leave the night 8-1, they left no doubt that team was still West Liberty basketball as they took down the Falcons, 106-100. Dan Monteroso, the returning senior leader from last year, led the team and the game with a 27-point performance, with Eric Meininger adding 18 and freshman Dalton Bolon with 15 points to send the Toppers into the winter break.

The team couldn’t relax for long; however, as they had to survive a close game by King University on the first game during the break. The Toppers had poor shooting from the three-point line, but still managed the 91-87 win

From there, it was mostly smooth sailing through the month of December and January as the team played on, even managing to knock off Concord on the road—a task they have struggled with for the past several years. They were able to hold Tommy Bolte, the nation’s leading scorer, to 23 points while Monteroso put in 28 points and Bolon put in a team-high 30 points.

After a road trip to Urbana, the Toppers stayed on the road and traveled 10 miles south to face their in-city rival Wheeling Jesuit. While West Liberty had struggled to beat the Cardinals on the road in matchups past, this was another story. The Hilltoppers traveled back up the hill victorious, 81-78 with Bolon leading the team again in this crucial game with 19 points and a perfect 6-6 from three-point range. Monteroso added in 16 points while James Griffin put in 15 more points. 

After a home win against Shepherd to sweep the season series with the Rams, the Hilltoppers went back on the road, looking to do the same with Fairmont State. However, the team came up short at the last buzzer and suffered their first loss of the season, 97-98. 

Monteroso led the team and the game with 25 points while Meininger and Bolon added respectively 17 and 13 points. The team rebounded quickly by sweeping a three game homestand and winning tough road contests against Charleston and West Virginia Wesleyan, with strong second half performances to pull away for the win. 

After two more games, the Hilltoppers came back to the friendly confines of the ASRC where Wheeling Jesuit awaited them for a rematch. The outcome didn’t favor the Hilltoppers that night, however, as they dropped the regular season finale 74-84 and their 47-game home winning streak came to an end. 

The team didn’t have time to dwell on the loss as postseason play came next, and with a strong regular season performance, the Hilltoppers locked up the No. 1 seed in the tournament and the regular season championship after being picked to finish third in the MEC preseason poll.

West Liberty made a strong showing in the quarterfinal round of the MEC tournament by taking down the hometown team, West Virginia State University, 133-106, breaking a tournament scoring record that had been broken by the Yellowjackets the night before. 

The semifinals were a different story, however, as a strong second half from the University of Charleston shocked the Toppers in their first overtime game of the season, 93-95

After the tough tournament loss, West Liberty hit the road down to Virginia State University after earning another at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 6 seed. Although they put on a strong effort, they could not overcome Shippensburg’s hot shooting and fell in the quarterfinals, 66-98. Monteroso led the team with 17 points and Jordan Watson added 15 more. 

Though it was a disappointing end to the season, the Hilltoppers proved there is a lot to look forward to for next season. 

The team will lose seniors Monteroso, Watson and Brandon Smith, but returning players, such as freshman Bolon and junior Griffin, proved they could still contribute to the team next season. 

With Ben Howlett breaking the West Liberty record for most wins by a first-year head coach, the future looks bright for West Liberty men’s basketball. 

Photo Credit: Hilltoppersports.com