#1 West Liberty def. #5 Notre Dame, 96-75

Photo: Sam Santilli

#1 West Liberty def. #5 Notre Dame, 96-75

Box Score

WHEELING – The more things change, the more they stay the same. For the fifth straight season, the West Liberty men will play for a Mountain East Conference Tournament championship.

Player of the year Bryce Butler recorded another double-double with 22 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and four steals as the top-seeded and No. 5-ranked Hilltoppers (27-3) pulled away from a pesky Notre Dame (17-13) team that came in as the fifth seed, in a semifinal matchup Saturday night at WesBanco Arena. Coach Ben Howlett is seeking his third title, while his team is looking to become the first in conference history to claim back-to-back crowns.

“I’m very pleased with this victory,” Howlett said. “I’ve said several times that Notre Dame is a team that nobody ever talks about, but is dangerous.

“You look at their starters’ minutes and I think we wore them out. It took a little longer than usual, but in the end we got the job done.”

In a manner of speaking, it was Butler that wore out the Falcons. He scored inside, he scored outside, and he tallied at the free-throw line. Never flashy, the Latrobe, Pa., native once again delivered.

“He’s the ultimate team guy,” Howlett raved. “As far as the all-time greats (at West Liberty), who’s better?

“There might be someone, but I don’t know.”

Count Notre Dame coach Mark Richmond among the Butler believers.

“He’s a really consistent player,” Richmond said. “He’s a guy that understands what he’s good at and does that – doesn’t try to do more and stays within himself.

“He competes every minute and his effort and energy is contagious for them. He’s the reason they are really, really good.”

Butler’s not a one-man show, however. Once more he had plenty of help and the Hilltoppers needed everyone against a Falcons team that for the longest time refused to go away.

As usual, WLU did the majority of its damage in spurts – or as they’ve been coined on the hilltop, “blackouts.” Each time NDC made things interesting, an onslaught ensued.

Like for instance during the first half, when Tyland Crawford scored two of his 17 points to bring Notre Dame within 29-26. West Liberty, behind 3s from Steve Cannady and Zach Rasile, ran off the next 10 points and finished the half on a 17-6 run for a 46-32 advantage.

“It’s easy (for the game) to get away from you,” Richmond said. “They’re a team of runs and what it is, is an accumulation of those runs.”

The Falcons had one more push-back in them out of the half. WLU’s Ben Sarson scored the first basket, but the Hilltoppers went scoreless for the next 4:20 and Notre Dame reeled off 10 straight points including all five of Obinna Ugwuakazi’s, to trim the margin to six at 48-42.

As it turns out, that was pretty much the last gasp. The next eight points belonged to West Liberty to push it back out to a comfortable 14-point bulge.

“It would be good,” Howlett understated of winning a second straight championship. “Here’s what I know: these guys put in an incredible amount of work.

“What I love about this group is, it’s guys that don’t care about points and stats – they care about winning.

“People expect you to go out and win every night, but winning is hard.”

Sarson backed Butler with 14 points while Malik McKinney tossed in 13 and Cannady and Rasile evenly divided 22 as part of five Hilltoppers in double figures.

Jaedon Willis led the way for Notre Dame with a team-high 20 points. DeAirius Barker added 16.

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