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Hilltoppers ‘bummed out’ over not being able to play in NCAA Tournament

WHEELING, W.Va. — West Liberty was a mere four days removed from having become the first Mountain East Conference men’s basketball team to sweep the league’s regular season and tournament championships in the same season.

Then, last Thursday, word began to surface of major Division I conferences canceling their tournaments all across the country. The Division II NCAA Tournament had been scheduled to begin the next day, with the Hilltoppers and Indiana (Pa.) University as co-hosts of the Atlantic Region.

“On Thursday night, we were reading all the other different tournaments and organizations that had been canceled,” Hilltoppers’ head coach Ben Howlett said on Citynet Statewide Sportsline. “On Friday, our guys were talking when Duke University pulled out of the Division I tournament, and even if they still had the tournament, they weren’t going to be participating.

“Right then and there, we were talking as a coaching staff that we’re probably not going to play the games.”

Not long after, Howlett discovered through MEC Commissioner and Atlantic Regional NCAA site representative Reid Amos that the D-II tournament had been canceled. Just like professional and Division I athletics, D-II sports had fallen victim to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

“It was devastating, because we put so much work into it,” Howlett said. “We certainly understand why the NCAA has done it. But it’s just a bummer that after all the work and all the excitement our guys had, we weren’t going to be able to play.”

The Hilltoppers (27-4) were one of three MEC men’s basketball teams from the Mountain State that lost out on a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, as Fairmont State and the University of Charleston had also both qualified for the Atlantic Regional. 

The Hilltoppers, seeded second, were to host No. 7 Virginia State in their tournament opener, with No. 3 UC vs. No. 6 Mercyhurst to follow. Had WLU and the Golden Eagles both won, they’d have met in the round of 32 in a MEC title game rematch. Fairmont State, meanwhile, was seeded fifth and scheduled to open against No. 4 Shippensburg at IUP.

Despite not being able to play in the NCAA Tournament after earning a bid for the 11th consecutive year, the Hilltoppers were at least able to take some solace knowing their season had ended with a victory in the MEC final. 

“We’re one of the few teams that got to end the season on a win,” Howlett said. “A lot of teams can’t say they do that. For some of them, that was the first time they’d ever cut a net down, so it was a big thrill.”

Unlike most coaches, Howlett didn’t have to inform any of his players their career had ended without a chance to play for the sport’s most prized possession. This year’s West Liberty team was comprised of six freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors.

“All of my guys are coming back,” Howlett said. “It wasn’t as hard whereas some of the other coaches have to tell a couple of their players, ‘This is it. It’s over.’”

Still, for a team that was leading all of Division II in scoring and had won 10 straight games and 21 of its last 22, the news of an abrupt ending was anything but easy to take.

“Our guys were pretty bummed out. We were playing pretty well at the time and still getting better,” Howlett said. “The energy level was great. Our guys were dialed in.

“But as I told them, it’s not just happening at West Liberty,” Howlett continued. “It’s happening across the country.”