CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anybody in Division II knows no lead is safe against West Liberty. But sometimes no lead seems safe for the Hilltoppers.
They demonstrated that Saturday night in the second semifinal of the West Virginia Conference men's tournament, seeing a 25-point lead melt to eight late in the contest.
Still, the nationally top-ranked Hilltoppers slammed the door on the Cardinals, scoring the last 11 points to take away a 92-73 victory.
The win puts them in the championship at 3:30 p.m. today, a Root Sports-televised battle against Fairmont State. It also cements, if there is any doubt, West Liberty's place as host of the NCAA Division II tournament's Atlantic Region.
Wheeling Jesuit (19-10) still has a chance at an at-large bid, despite being out of the region's top 10. But there have been key losses in the region this week and the Cardinals went 14-3 in the home stretch, losing all three times to the Hilltoppers (29-1).
This much is certain: Hilltoppers coach Jim Crutchfield is happy to have his neighboring rivals out of his hair.
"Sometimes it's not the easier position to be in, against a good team, playing when you're ahead," said Crutchfield. "We played well in the first half, had a 20-point lead. We got a little too conservative as everybody probably saw, slowed down the offense a little bit.
"But you're also treading that thin line of 'If we start shooting the ball quickly and missing shots,' we put them back into the game ourselves. We didn't want to do that."
While the Hilltoppers' second half was up and down, they put on a clinic in the first half en route to a 54-33 lead. They shot 60 percent from all distances and split their 20 3-point attempts, including four by pint-sized bomber Tim Hausfeld.
The Hilltoppers had 17 assists on 21 baskets and held the Cardinals to three offensive rebounds. The latter stat didn't help a Wheeling team that shot just 43.3 percent.
Hausfield, who seemingly throws his entire 5-foot-6 frame into his outrageously deep 3-pointers, helped crack open the Cardinals' zone. With 16 3s for the game, the Hilltoppers were able to exploit those cracks - like they almost always do.