IUP just could never find a rhythm offensively Tuesday night.

Despite holding West Liberty, who averaged 101.0 points per game entering the night, to its lowest scoring output of the season, the IUP men’s basketball team shot just 30.2 percent (16-for-53) from the floor and fell to the Hilltoppers, 70-53, in the Atlantic Region championship game at the KCAC.

“We never got comfortable offensively,” said IUP coach Joe Lombardi. “You can't just impose your will defensively like we might have done against some other teams, you have to score.”

With the loss, the Crimson Hawks (32-2) fell agonizingly short of making their second consecutive appearance in the Elite Eight.

IUP had seen some offensive struggles down the stretch of the season – shooting 40 percent or lower from the field in six of its last 13 games – but the Hawks relied on their defense to win those games. It was something IUP had done so many times during the year, including in the previous two tournament games. But as West Liberty proved, defense just isn’t enough against the offensive powerhouse which the Hilltoppers are.

“It felt like there was a lid on the hoop,” said Shawndale Jones (graduate student). “They run five people in and five people out. It gets teams tired. Their press is very effective, but other than that, they guarded us the way any other team would. Shots just didn’t fall.”

A little past the midway point of the first half, West Liberty guard Alek West made a layup to give the Hilltoppers a 20-19 lead, a lead which they would hold onto for the rest of the evening.

From that point, West Liberty outscored the Hawks 14-7 the rest of the first half, capped with Finley Woodward’s jumper at the buzzer to give the Hilltoppers a 34-26 lead at the break.

“We wanted these guys today,” said West Liberty coach Ben Howlett. “We wanted to play IUP on its home floor, and I think our guys wanted this game as well. I could tell at shootaround this morning that we meant business.”

IUP cut the Hilltoppers’ lead below the halftime deficit of eight points just once in the second half, but due to the Hawks’ inability to sustain any kind of run in the second half, West Liberty’s lead only grew.

By the 14:22 mark, the visitors’ lead had grown to 12 points, 45-33, and it fluctuated between eight and 12 points until the closing minutes. Bryce Butler hit a dagger 3-pointer with just over four minutes to go, which put the Hilltoppers lead at 64-49 and all but squashed any chance of an IUP comeback.

The Hilltoppers held the Hawks to 8-for-26 shooting in the second half, led by guard Christian Montague, who finished with only eight points, but had the second highest plus/minus on the team at plus-16.

“We played help defense in the gaps,” said Montague. “We helped each other off the drive, rotated and luckily they missed shots and we came down with rebounds.”

Where IUP struggled offensively when it mattered most, West Liberty turned up the shot-making. The Hilltoppers shot 54 percent (14-for-26) in the second half, led by standout senior guard Butler, who scored a game high 30 points on 12-for-16 shooting on his way to being named tournament MVP. Last week, Butler was named the Atlantic Region Player of the Year.

“It just goes to show how good of teammates I have,” said Butler. “They were guarding me one-on-one because I have great shooters around me. I have great players around me, and I think they kind of knew that if they helped, I would find my teammates and they would make them pay.”

The Hilltoppers, who were upset as the No. 2 seed in the first round of last year’s regional tournament, entered play with a chip on their shoulders and wanted to prove why they were truly the best team in the region.

“We hear PSAC, PSAC, PSAC all the time. Well, we just played three PSAC schools and beat them,” said Howlett. “These guys have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders, and they came in here and got three wins against PSAC schools.”

West Liberty beat Pitt-Johnstown and Mercyhurst in the first two rounds of the regional tournament before downing IUP.

Ethan Porterfield (junior) shot 6-for-12 from the floor and led the Hawks with 22 points and 11 rebounds, marking his third double-double of the season. Tomiwa Sulaiman (sophomore) also picked up a double-double, his 15th of the year, grabbing 11 boards while adding 13 points.

Porterfield and Sulaiman were named to the all-tournament team.

With one team’s triumph comes another team’s demise, and with the loss marking the end of the Hawks’ season, it also marks the conclusion of Jones and Dave Morris’ (redshirt senior) remarkable careers at IUP.

Jones finished out his career with more 1,000 points including 634 this season, which stands as fifth most in a single season in school history. Morris concludes his time with the Hawks seventh all-time in assists, with 388, and fourth all-time in steals with 202 (six shy of passing Devante Chance’s 207 for second).

This season alone, both Jones and Morris were first team All-PSAC West selections. Jones was named PSAC West Player of the Year, and Morris won PSAC Athlete of the Week twice while Jones earned that honor four times throughout the year. Over the three full seasons they were members of the Hawks, IUP went 93-7, with three PSAC tournament championships, and last year’s appearance in the Elite Eight.

Jones and Morris, who both transferred from Division I programs prior to the 2019-20 season, played as AAU teammates before college and were able to finish out their collegiate careers together, with nothing but success and accomplishments. And perhaps most importantly, with no regrets.

“When [Dave and I] entered the portal, that was something we talked about, playing with each other again,” said Jones. “The things we were able to accomplish, just relinquishing our egos and focusing on the team is something that nobody can take away from us.

“I’m grateful for the time I had here, regardless of what happened. I’m just happy; win, lose or draw, I’m happy to be here and compete with these people and say I came to IUP. It’s nothing but love.”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.