EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The buses are rolling now.
When Central Missouri and West Liberty won their semifinal-round games Thursday night to advance to Saturday’s NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball championship game, the news spread quickly through the schools’ campuses.
Central Missouri called off its football spring game scheduled for Saturday and arranged for several buses to take students and Mules fans from Warrensburg, Mo., to the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., for the championship game.
And the same thing happened in West Liberty, W.Va., where buses were chartered for the eight-hour trip west. The Hilltoppers have never won an NCAA championship in any sport.
“We have a really good following in West Liberty,” Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield said. “We’re a long way from home. It’s a long ride here. We’re going to have a contingency here.”
Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson’s cell phone hasn’t stopped. Among the text messages was one from “Stormin’ ” Norman Stewart, a College Basketball Hall of Famer who coached at Missouri for 32 years. Among his students was Anderson, a former Big Eight Conference leading scorer who was on one of Stewart’s eight conference championship teams and also was an assistant coach for Stewart.
Stewart congratulated Anderson on reaching his first national championship game and also had a piece of advice: “Get the ball to the baseline more.”
The title game will match up the nation’s highest-scoring offense against a Central Missouri team that features former Texas Tech guard Daylen Robinson and a starting lineup consisting completely of college transfer students.
“It’s a moment that I will cherish, win or lose,” Robinson said. “This is what every player dreams about.”
West Liberty (31-3) defeated 2013 national champion Drury in the Elite Eight quarterfinals Wednesday, then held off USC-Aiken, 86-83, in the semifinals. The Hilltoppers averaged more than 101 points a game during the regular season. Seven players average in double figures in scoring, led by senior guard Cedric Harris’ 17.8.
While West Liberty can roll up points quickly through a combination of strong shooting and pressure defense that creates turnovers, the NCAA tournament has produced a number of challenges. Their victories on the way to Evansville included a triple-overtime win over Indiana, Pa.
“Every game has just been a fight from start to finish,” Crutchfield said. “We’ve never had a chance to relax. I think they may be more comfortable in that situation.”
The Hilltoppers have won at least 31 games in each of their past four seasons and they’ve led Division II in scoring in eight of the last nine seasons. But until Saturday, they’ve never played in a national championship game. The school’s only national championships in NAIA came in bowling and baseball; former Major League Baseball star Joe Niekro was a pitcher for West Liberty’s 1964 baseball championship team.
“Playing on Saturday is really an honor,” said junior guard Shawn Dyer, who scored a game-high 30 points against USC-Aiken. “West Liberty, we have a chance to make history. An opportunity to play. That’s the beauty about this.”
“Crazy. It’s just crazy,” said freshman guard Devin Hoehn. “That’s the only word to describe it right there. We have a chance to make history.”
Central Missouri (29-5) knocked off top-ranked Metro State 71-69 to reach the title game. The winning basket came with one second left when Robinson fed childhood friend TJ White the ball for a lay-in. Robinson and White were two of a large group of transfers because the Mules lost 10 players from last year’s team. Charles Hammork, a guard, led Central Missouri with 14 points and 10 rebounds against Metro State.
“I think they’re a great basketball team,” Crutchfield said. “They’ve got their bases covered. They’ve got a post guy (Dillon Deck) that’s 6-9. He’s got great hands and great feet. He’s aggressive. They’ve got a guard (Robinson) who was at Texas Tech last year that’s very experienced. He’s strong, can get to the basket. I think he’s a great defender.”
The Mules, who were an at-large selection to the NCAA tournament, haven’t lost since losing by two points to Northeastern State in the first round of their conference tournament.
“This group has been incredibly focused, especially the last two to three weeks,” Anderson said. “Ever since we lost in the conference tournament, we’ve been unbelievably focused.”