EVANSVILLE, Ind - All the meticulous preparation, from film study to practice and spending time in the training room, comes down to this one game.
No. 7 West Liberty (31-3) and No. 20 Central Missouri (29-5) meet at 3 p.m. today at the Ford Center for the right to call themselves NCAA Division II men's basketball champions.
"The thought of playing for a national title is great, but winning one would be even better," West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said prior to the team's practice Friday morning. "Our guys are excited for it, but I think they are staying focused on the game, which is the important thing.
"It's two really good teams that wouldn't be in this position if they weren't playing good basketball right now."
The Hilltoppers used a stifling defensive effort and 30 points off the bench from Shawn Dyer to slay giant South Carolina-Aiken late Thursday night in the semifinals, immediately after T.J. White's layup with a second left had given the Mules a 71-69 victory against top-ranked Metro State.
"If I didn't know (Thursday) night that I had to play them, I would have enjoyed watching them," said UCM coach Kim anderson, who was the 1977 Big 8 Player of the Year at Missouri. "They've certainly had a great run, and not just this year. It's a great challenge.
"A lot of teams you go through and say 'this guy you don't have to guard quite as much.' They have seven guys in double figjures and they all shoot very well from the 3."
West Liberty, which has improved its Elite 8 record to 18-5 (the best winning percentage of any D-II program), has had to battle through a meat grinder to get to this point. The Hilltoppers' last four victories have come against the Nos. 15, 2, 8 and 5 teams in the country.
"Every game has been a fight from the start to the finish and we haven't had a chance to relax," Crutchfield said. "I think (we're) better in those situations. When you get to this level the game is almost assured of being that way. "You're going to be in the last five minutes wondering who is going to win the game.
"Our guys feel that right now and know that's how it's going to be."
Anderson hopes that is the case. The Central Missouri coach has studied WLU extensively and doesn't know if there are any real weaknesses.
"The thing is, we've gone back and we see what they do. We've played against teams that do some of the things they do, but haven't done them as well," Anderson said. "We're going to make mistakes and turn it over, but we can't turn it over four times in a row.
"That's where they do a great job - they strike and make their runs that way."
The Mules, who were crowned national champions in 1984, are a well-balanced team that features a pair of big men in Dillon Deck and Brennen Hughes, who have proven to be a tough matchup for everyone during this tournament run.
The 6-foot-9 Deck averages a team-leading 13.7 points to go along with 5.4 rebounds, while Hughes, a junior, comes off the bench.
"We've beaten some very good teams to get here and we're capable of playing at that level," Crutchfield said.
"For us to win a national championship, we are going to have to be clicking on all cylinders as they say.
"The variables that we can control, we're doing everything we can."
Charles Hammork and Daylen Robinson both average 12.9 points for CMU, and combined for 27 in the victoryu against Metro.
"This is a game of contrasting styles," Anderson said. "We're not a slow-down team by any means, but they like to create possessions and they like to score points.
"They average over a hundred a game and we're giving up 67 or 68, so something is going to have to give. It should be an exciting game."
West Liberty is paced by consensus All-America point guard Cedric Harris, with his 17.8 points and six assists per game. Dyer (14.8) and C.J. Hester (14.3) closely follow, while Devin Hoehn (12.0), Keene Cockburn (11.6),
Bubby Goodwin (10.8) and Seger Bonifant (10.6) round out seven double-digit scorers.
"It's exciting for these guys, for us and for our fans back in West Liberty, and even in other parts of West Virginia," Crutchfield said. "You do what you can to rest and get prepared and that's what we're doing."