EVANSVILLE, Ind.- Those clutch 3-pointers just wouldn't fall like they normally do.
Because of that, the tears did.
Tournament Most Outstanding Player Daylen Robinson dropped in one big shot after another down the stretch as Central Missouri (30-5) stunned West Liberty (31-4) by an 84-77 count Saturday at the Ford Center to claim the NCAA Division II men's basketball championship, in front of 4,742 fans - the best attended final since 1990.
Photo by Matt Watson/West Liberty’s Cedric Harris (32) attempts to drive past Central Missouri’s Jon Gilliam (21) during Saturday’s NCAA Division II men’s championship at Evansville, Ind. Central Missouri won 84-77.
"Xs and Os-wise, they had some guys step up and hit some really big shots," Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield said. "(Robinson) made some huge shots down the stretch late in the shot clock. They managed to burn 30 seconds and still get a 3 out of it."
West Liberty survived a poor-shooting - by its standards - night and allowing 18 offensive rebounds in the national semifinals, but that was too tall a task to repeat. The Mules crashed the boards hard and hit the Toppers with a couple daggers off their own missed shots.
"Here we are again, we give up 18 offensive rebounds and we were 8-for-29 from the 3-point line. Those two things don't go hand-in-hand with winning, especially when they shoot over 50 percent from the 3-point line," Crutchfield said. "Especially that last four or five minutes, we finally make them take a tough shot and got the stop, but they get the rebound, another 30 seconds, and then they scored.
"Those were huge."
Cognizant of the matchup problems Central Missouri big men Dillon Deck and Brennen Hughes presented inside, West Liberty elected to try to make life miserable in the post and the by-product was giving up some looks on the perimeter. A 36-percent 3-point shooting team for the season, Central Missouri made good on 11 of 21 on Saturday.
A major part of that was the Hilltoppers elected to go under UCM screens, and thus had a hard time recovering to contest those looks.
"We were going under screens a lot in the first half and I was mad about that, especially when it's that late in the shot clock," Crutchfield said. "A couple of them in the second half, if you go over them maybe you get rolled out and the big guy scores.
"They made some shots they normally don't make. Looking back, if I could do it again we might be stepping out and doubling those screens."
In a game that featured 14 ties and nine lead changes, Central Missouri took control for good on a Robinson 3-pointer to make it 71-68, and Deck's putback gave it a five-point lead.
Cedric Harris knocked down a free throw and Shawn Dyer scored after a Seger Bonifant steal to cut it back to three.
Deck scored inside and got fouled, but missed the free throw. C.J. Hester hit two at the line on the other end, but the Mules closed on a 6-2 run.
"I'm not into that unfinished business or anything like that," Crutchfield said. "We've been here before and it's not like there's two teams here, there's eight teams here.
"The frustration is we lost a game, and that's hard to take. It's much harder to get here than it is to win this game.
"I don't feel like, 'geez, we've come this far and didn't win.' We just didn't win."
Things looked pretty good early for the Hilltoppers, who took their largest lead at 35-26 when Harris got loose for two of his 14 first-half points. West Liberty had great success getting to the basket and shot 47 percent in the initial 20 minutes, yet had to settle for a 39-37 halftime cushion.
"We said coming in we felt we had to control their penetration and keep them from driving to the basket. In the first half we didn't do a very good job," CMU coach Kim Anderson said. "You've got to pick your poison. They're either going to beat you on the drive or on 3s.
"I thought we did a much better job in the second half. This is a team that scores 101 points a game, and we knew that if it got to 101 we would not win."
The Mules buckled down and ended with the result they desired. Harris was limited to four points and the Toppers turned it over with uncharacteristic regularity.
"Our guys played as hard as they could and we have kind of based our program on having a lot of heart," Crutchfield said. "It helps you win basketball games when you do that.
"When you lose it's painful, because you put everything you have on the line."
Robinson led everyone with 21 points and Deck checked in with 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Mules. Jordan Epps came off the bench and hit a trio of big 3-pointers and finished with 11.
Shawn Dyer led the Hilltoppers with 19 points and Harris closed out a remarkable career with 18 points and four assists. Junior C.J. Hester produced his eighth double-double this season - and the 32nd of his career - with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while Keene Cockburn netted eight points, pulled down eight rebounds and blocked three shots to give him 99 for the season, in his final game in a West Liberty uniform.
Robinson was joined on the all-tournament team by Deck and Charles Hammork.
The Hilltoppers were represented by Harris and Dyer.