WEST LIBERTY 75 STONEHILL 74
Senior All-America forward Seger Bonifant compiled game highs of 22 points and 11 rebounds in leading #5 West Liberty (WV) to a squeaker over Stonehill in the NCAA Division II Elite-8 in Frisco, Texas, avenging a national quarterfinal loss just four years ago in the two teams' only other meeting.
"Unfortunately, the ball didn't bounce enough our way, and one basket too many for those guys," head coach Chris Kraus said after the game. "I couldn't be happier or more proud of this group for what they've done, and I was just along for the ride."
A 15-2 second-half run, sparked by a Bonifant lay-up, snapped a 45-45 tie and put the Hilltoppers in front for good at 60-47 with 8:05 to play. However, the Skyhawks - playing their third national quarterfinal game in 11 years - refused to go down quietly, using a late 11-4 spurt to inch within 70-67 after two free throws from forward Pierce Cumpstone with 1:13 left.
That was the first of three occasions down the stretch in which Stonehill would pull within three, but on each occasion, Junior guard Devin Hoehn had an answer, hitting an elbow jumper to beat the shot clock inside the final minute, two foul shots at the 16-second mark, then the second of two free throws with 6.7 seconds on the clock to effectively clinch the contest, rendering Cumpstone's banked-in 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining a mere footnote. Hoehn finished with 19 points, including 14 in the second half.
The Skyhawks led by one point on three occasions during a very tight opening period, never falling behind by more than six. West Liberty held a 32-30 lead at the break and never trailed thereafter, outscoring Stonehill 14-4 off turnovers on the day. Cumpstone, a 6-8 senior from Bainbridge Township, Ohio, guarded Bonifant and more than held his own against the Sporting News National Player of the Year and fellow Buckeye, registering his 14th double-double of the season with 21 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 5-7 from beyond the arc and drew Bonifant's fifth foul on a nifty pump-fake in the corner with 3:18 to go, aiding the late run.
"The woulda coulda shouldas of it all," lamented Kraus, who has taken his team to the Elite-8 as a senior point guard, assistant coach and now in his third year as head coach. "Some of the balls just didn't drop today, but we've got great shooters... that are calm, cool and collected under pressure and if we're in that situation again, I wouldn't want anybody else to be there."
With the result, the East Region (formerly known as the Northeast and New England) has now gone 28 straight seasons without a national championship – the longest drought among the eight regions of Division II – dating back to Lowell’s 1988 title. And it’s now been 11 years since a regional club has played in the national championship game – namely Bryant (like Mass-Lowell, a Division I team these days), which lost to Virginia Union in North Dakota at the 2005 Elite-8.
Thus wraps up another season of reports from every corner of the East Region. My sincerest thanks to all the coaches, sports information directors, players and administrators who have helped provide the information and hospitality as I made it to 39 of the 40 schools over the course of the winter (sorry, Merrimack - conflicts with every game), and I reached 100+ men's games for a 24th consecutive season. And thanks to all of you fans and supporters who have read the recaps and checked out all the stats and standings during the second year of this new website. For those of you who have requested an “Around the Rim” column, I plan to write one in a couple of weeks. Check in periodically under the FEATURES tab for that. And until we cross paths again, God bless!