Hilltoppers advance to final four

(Story by West Liberty/NCAA)

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Seger Bonifant came off the bench to drain a career-best 6-of-6 shots from behind the 3-point arc Wednesday night and No. 7 West Liberty pulled away to an 85-75 victory against defending national champion Drury in an NCAA Division II national quarterfinal at the Ford Center.

After locking up their fourth consecutive 30-win season, Coach Jim Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers (30-3) advance to take on the winner of Wednesday night’s late quarterfinal between No. 5 South Carolina-Aiken (32-3) and unranked Chico State (25-7). It will be West Liberty’s third Final Four appearance in the past four seasons.

“This was a really good win for us against a great program,” Crutchfield said. “I have a ton of respect for Drury. Not only are they an outstanding defensive team, they’re really good on offense. They have a lot of good movement with their motion that was hard to guard.

“I thought our guys did a good job of turning up the heat in the second half and forcing some turnovers. That led to some layups and some open looks on 3s and really got us going.”

In a game of runs – there were 11 ties and 10 lead changes – it became more and more obvious as the second half ticked down that the team with the last run would have the last laugh.

After a pair of C.J. Hester’s free throws produced the game’s 11th tie and 10th lead change, putting the Hilltoppers up 61-60 Bonifant took matters into his own hands.

The 6-7 sophomore hit three consecutive 3-pointers in a 64-second span to give West Liberty its first double-digit lead of the night 70-60 as the clock ticked past the 5-minute mark.

“My teammates did a great job of creating off the dribble to get me open looks,” Bonifant said. “All I had to do was knock them down.”

Panther head coach Steve Hesser called a timeout but the Hilltoppers were on their way. The lead swelled as high as 15 points 81-66 on a Shawn Dyer 3-pointer with 2:45 remaining and WLU coasted home.

Bonifant finished with a team-high 20 points – he was 7-for-7 overall from the floor – but the rangy sharpshooter had plenty of help.

All-American Cedric Harris, who had just 2 points in the first half and missed a chunk of the second half after picking up his fourth foul with just under 14 minutes to go, went 10-for-11 from the foul line and finished with 16 points. Dyer added 13 points and 5 assists while Hester chipped in with a dozen points and 6 rebounds. Keene Cockburn was a force in the paint with 6 points, a game-high 13 rebounds and 3 blocks.

“I wasn’t worried when I had to sit out with four fouls,” Harris said. “I have a lot of faith in my teammates and they picked me up tonight.”

Drury’s 1-2 punch of Bundy and Cameron Adams finished with 20 and 18 points, respectively. Ian Carter added 15 points and 12 rebounds while Lonnie Boga added 13 tallies but the rest of the Panther roster combined for just 9 points. West Liberty had a whopping 52-6 edge in points off the bench.

“I think all the close games we had in the regional really prepared us for tonight,” Hester said. “We believe in controlling the elements we can control – defense and hard work – everything else will fall in place.”

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