Warriors’ historic season ends in Sweet 16 loss to West Liberty

ESU’s historic season, which saw them capture their second consecutive PSAC Championship, came to an end after an 89-82 loss to West Liberty. Photo Credit / Abigail Dobrowolski
ESU’s historic season, which saw them capture their second consecutive PSAC Championship, came to an end after an 89-82 loss to West Liberty. Photo Credit / Abigail Dobrowolski

ESU’s historic season, which saw them capture their second consecutive PSAC Championship, came to an end after an 89-82 loss to West Liberty.
Photo Credit / Abigail Dobrowolski

BY CORY NIDOH

Asst. Sports Editor

30 wins, PSAC Champions, national ranking throughout most of the season, host of the Atlantic Region in the NCAA Division II Tournament, bringing out the Warrior Spirit while joining together the student body and the community in East Stroudsburg, PA is what Jeff Wilson and his basketball team accomplished during their historical and magical season this year.

After celebrating the news of being host-university for the Atlantic Region, which was the first time in school history, the Warriors were poised to make a serious run as they entered the tournament for the fourth time in the last five years.

Koehler Fieldhouse was the stage and was packed to capacity as eight teams including ESU hit the hardwood in hopes of being the Atlantic Region representative and earning a trip to Evansville, Indiana to be named the Division II Basketball Champions of 2013-2014.

ESU earned a first-round bye being the top seed in the region.  They hosted Livingstone College, out of Salisbury, North Carolina in the second round of the tournament.

The game went back and forth as the visiting Blue Bears gave the Warriors a hard fought game.

The Warriors had to hold on to the last possession to prevail as Mark Thomas from Livingstone, the CIAA Player of the Year, missed a jump shot with just three ticks left on the clock.

Senior Forward Zechariah Runkle came down with the rebound and the Warriors survived 99-98 to earn their second NCAA Tournament win in program history.

In the third round of the tournament, the Warriors faced a PSAC West team in Gannon the following day on Sunday.  This game was a much different type of game as the Warriors took care of Gannon by the score of 66-58.

ESU started the game off with one of their scoring runs that all their PSAC opponents fell victim to during the season — as the Warriors went on a 15-2 run and then an 11-0 run to end the first half to take a dominating 36-19 lead into the locker rooms.

Yet, Gannon came back in the second half as they closed the margin to just five points at the 8:50 mark with the score being 49-44.

However, the Warriors were able to pull ahead and had a 10 point cushion with 32 seconds left as the score was 66-56.  Gannon would score one more bucket to make it the final score.

The All-Tournament representative for the Warriors, Whis Grant, again showed why he has been the top player for the Warriors this season as he had a solid performance of 29 points to lead five scorers for ESU who all had double digits.

Freshman forward Rasheed Moore had 18 points along with seven rebounds and redshirt junior guard Will Brown provided a spark with 16 points off the bench.

Junior point guard Matt Tobin had his fourth double-double of the year with 11 points and 11 assists and the PSAC Tournament MVP Jamal Nwaniemeka also added 10 of his own.  With the win, the Warriors had a chance to revenge their loss against West Liberty back in 2011-12 as WLU knocked the Warriors out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year.

The game fit the bill to be a good one.  The only No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in any of the eight regions in the tournament was set to tip-off at a packed Koehler Fieldhouse.

In a first half that saw six lead changes and five ties, ESU saw themselves up 37-31 with three minutes left in the half.

The Hilltoppers, out of Wheeling West Virginia, closed the half on a 13-2 run which included 11 straight points to regain the lead at half.

As the second half commenced, WLU was able to build to a 13-point lead 72-59 with a little over nine minutes remaining in the contest.

At the two minute mark, the Warriors looked up at the scoreboard to see them down by just three but couldn’t convert on two possessions as WLU converted a fastbreak layup to give them a five point cushion.

Tillery then knocked down a three to make it 82-82.  ESU defense came up with a stop but Tobin’s shot on the ensuing possession came up short and was rebounded by West Liberty to secure the Hiltoppers’ 89-82 win.

Runkle, who played his final collegiate game, had nine points and 12 rebounds and finished the tournament with 21 points, 38 rebounds and six blocks.  Grant had another good game as he had 19 points, five rebounds and four assists.

Moore had 17 points and eight rebounds, while Brown and Tillery added 13 and 10 points respectively.

With the loss, the Warrior’s historic season came to an end.  They finished the year with a 30-2 record, setting the school record in wins which was previously 24.

The Warriors are 112-39 since the start of the 2009-10 season and finished ranked in the NABC Division II poll for the first time in school history.  ESU also had seven players with triple-digit point totals on the year.

Runkle finished his senior year playing in 31 of the 32 games this season as he averaged 21 minutes a contest while averaging five points per game along with six blocks per game.

Grant is now fourth on the all-time ESU scoring list with 1,487 points and had the sixth most points (526) in a season.  He also was named to the NABC Division II Atlantic Region first team for the second straight year.

Jeff Wilson, who finished his twelfth season at ESU, was named the region’s coach of the year for the second time in five seasons.

Under Wilson, the Warriors have become a perennial powerhouse in Northeast Pennsylvania and a team that has landed national recognition.

After taking over the team a year after they went 4-20 in the 2002-03 season, Wilson has turned around the program.  They set a then school record with 24 wins during the 2009-10 season.

Wilson will enter next season with a career record of 213-129 which is a .623 winning percentage and includes four 20-win seasons in the last five seasons.  He will break the school record for wins as he is two wins away (215).

The Men’s Basketball team is perhaps one of the strongest programs at ESU with the success that they have had over the past five seasons and are poised for another run at the PSAC Championship and NCAA Division II Tournament.

They are returning everyone but Runkle for next season as Tobin, Grant, Tillery, Nwaniemeka, and Brown will all be seniors and will compose of a strong nucleus that will also have Moore who was a standout freshman in the PSAC with an added year of experience.

The Men’s Basketball team created a buzz and image on campus and around the community that hasn’t been felt or seen in a few years.

As all good things come to an end at some point, the Warriors Basketball team entertained and warmed the students and community with their magical, historical, and memorable season during the cold months of winter.

Email Cory at: 

cnidoh@live.esu.edu

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