Being the defending national champion isn’t easy, and yet, Drury was here Wednesday night with its NCAA Division II championship hopes still alive.
Yet, against West Liberty (W.Va.), an up-tempo, high-scoring team, the Panthers ran out of steam in an 85-75 loss to the Hilltoppers in a national quarterfinal at the Ford Center.
Few people believed the Panthers would even get this far. But with just over eight minutes to play, eighth-ranked Drury, 28-4, was poised to survive and advance as it led 60-59 over seventh-ranked West Liberty, 30-3.
The Hilltoppers soon turned the tide, feeding off turnovers to fuel an 11-0 run and end Drury’s hopes to be the first repeat champion since Cal State Bakersfield in 1994.
“People were talking at the beginning of the season about how we weren’t anything without those seniors we lost. That last year was a fluke, ” said Kameron Adams, who scored 18 points for the Panthers. “We wanted this chance again and we earned our way here. It was an honor to be here and it hurts to come up short.”
One bad stretch in the second half doomed Drury. Up 60-59 after a pair of free throws by Kameron Bundy, two straight turnovers led to two free throws for CJ Hester and a three-pointer by Seger Bonifant.
Bonifant got hot after that first trey swished through. He would hit two more in a row, getting wide open both times, as Drury fell behind 70-60.
The Panthers never recovered, struggling to get back into the game against relentless pressure by the Hilltoppers, who were making their fourth consecutive appearance in the Elite Eight.
“They keep the pressure on for 94 feet,” Drury coach Steve Hesser said. “In preparation for them, we talked about them wanting to fatigue us physically and mentally. We had made some fundamental mistakes that you can’t afford to make in a game like this.”
Bundy, the point guard for the Panthers, talked about dealing with the pressure. He scored 20 points to pace Drury.
“Their press gave us problems,” Bundy said. “We weren’t tough enough with the ball in those situations.”
It went well for the Panthers early. They led 32-21 after Ian Carter knocked down a jumper in the lane. Carter dominated early and scored 15 points to go along with 12 rebounds.
But Drury made only two more shots in the final 4:24 of the half and West Liberty was down 36-34 at halftime. The second half was a back-and-forth battle most of the way, with the two teams trading big shots until the Hilltoppers stole the momentum.
Drury shot 42.9 percent, 24 for 56, from the field and Lonnie Boga added 13 points. The Panthers turned the ball over 12 times, which led to 18 points for West Liberty.
Bonifant led the Hilltoppers with 20 points. West Liberty shot 44.3 percent, 27 for 61.
While the loss was not easy to digest, especially after winning a title a year ago, Hesser was proud of his team for what it accomplished.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Hesser said. “Obviously, no one expected us to be here. We lost three seniors last year, but our guys figured out how to handle the challenges during the year. We had a great season.”