SHEPHERDSTOWN — In a game of visual beauty that must have made John Wooden, Clair Bee, Fred Schaus, and Red Auerbach smile with its clarity and purpose, it was unbeaten and No. 1-ranked West Liberty getting home in front of equally race-horse Shepherd, 114-109, in a high-quality NCAA Division II men’s game at the sometimes frenzied Butcher Center.
The nation’s top-ranked small college team needed every idea and every ploy its obviously talented coach, Jim Crutchfield, could find. Because Shepherd was just as willing, just as motivated, and only inches shy of achieving what the Hilltoppers did.
Both teams used full court pressure. With pressure in evidence, the tempo was withering. And sometimes pressure brings with it some messy basketball with turnovers and a long list of personal fouls.
But that wasn’t the case with the high-octane Rams and all-circuits-at-the ready Hilltoppers.
Back and forth the two teams went. Scoring in bunches. Giving the crowd of more than a thousand what it came to see — intense players giving them a never-ending blend of individual and team scoring.
A couldn’t-be-more-entertaining first half had West Liberty’s diminutive Tim Hausfeld end it with a three-pointer just in front of the horn. Those were the last points where 123 had been counted and West Liberty had a sizzling 62-61 lead.
The up-from-their seats Shepherd crowd had been made almost hoarse by Brantley Osborne whose unerring three-point marksmanship had given him 28 points in the half. Osborne 6-for-8 on his three-point efforts, 9-for-11 overall and had made all four of his free throws.
But the Hilltoppers, now 13-0 overall, had shown the crowd the 17 points of work-his-way-to-the-basket Alex Falk and the 14 points of C.J. Hester. And they led by a point even though Shepherd had made 19 of its 36 shots (52.8 percent).
As the teams went off at intermission, the crowd tried to catch its collective breath and waited for what it hoped would be another entertaining second half.
The second half’s start was too quiet for Shepherd’s desires. West Liberty edged farther ahead. Both Austin Cunningham and Morgan McDonald were tagged with their third fouls.
And the Shepherd turnovers were thicker than were those of the Hilltoppers. The Rams had 16 second-half turnovers as compared with West Liberty’s seven.
With Falk and Hester doing much of the scoring, West Liberty eased in front by eight. Shepherd’s Osborne was drawing particular defensive interest from Shawn Dyer and couldn’t be freed for the same long-range scoring show he gave in the first half.
The Rams never caught fire again. They were always within range because Marcus Pilgrim was scoring 15 of his 24 points in the second half and Chad Moore added another 13 points after a particularly unlucky first half.
Osborne added nine points to his burgeoning total to close with 37 points.
But Falk had 33 points and Hester heaped another 27 points on the West Liberty scoring pyre.
Both teams had surpassed the 50 percent shooting mark from field. West Liberty went 22-for-26 from the foul line. It made 41.7 percent of its three-point attempts. Shepherd had gone 20-for-26 from the foul line. It made 53.6 percent of its three-point tries.
Once it carved out a lead and reached the bonus situation at the foul line with 6:04 to play, the Hilltoppers were finally where they wanted to be.
It had been a game that had high quality play.
It had been a game of intensity and crowd-appeal.
One team had to fall short. And that team wasn’t No. 1-ranked West Liberty.