(EVANSVILLE, Ind.) – In a game that saw 14 ties and nine lead changes, the Central Missouri Mules used a 6-0 run in the last minute to beat No. 7 West Liberty 84-77 on Saturday to win the NCAA-II Men’s Basketball National Championship.
University officials are planning to have a parade at 5:30 p.m. Monday and a pep rally at 6 p.m. at the Multipurpose Building to honor the team.
The Mules (30-5) came out of the gates on fire, jumping out to a 9-2 lead just two and half minutes into the game.
The Hilltoppers (31-4), of West Liberty, W.Va., found their footing, however, and began to get to the bucket against the UCM defense. West Liberty tied the game on a Shawn Dyer layup at the 13:52 mark and again on subsequent possessions. A jumper from Jordan Epps put UCM back in front 19-17, but Seger Bonifant drilled a three-pointer to ignite a 10-0 run that gave the Hilltoppers a 27-19 lead with 8:27 to play in the half.
Jon Gilliam drained a triple for the Mules that broke the WLU run and pulled UCM back to within five. The teams traded free throws and the Hilltoppers led 33-25 with 5:41 to play in the half. The lead grew to nine following a Cedric Harris jumper, but Brennen Hughes‘ layup and TJ White‘s tip-in pulled the Mules to within five at the 3:06 mark. Following a Harris layup, the Mules hit back-to-back threes from Epps and Preston Brunz, to pull within 37-36. A Charles Hammork free throw tied the game at 37, but a Harris layup with four seconds left in the half gave West Liberty a 39-37 lead at halftime.
Mike Lamberti drained a three out of the intermission to give the Hilltoppers a five-point lead, but a layup from Dillon Deck and a dunk tip-in by Hammork pulled the Mules back to within one. The Mules tied the game at 43 on a Hughes layup with 16:58 to play. West Liberty went right back in front as the teams traded buckets on seemingly every possession.
A three pointer from Brunz gave the Mules a 48-47 lead, but Keene Cockburn put West Liberty right back in front with a bucket on the other end. Neither team led by more than three points in the next few minutes as the lead changed hands back and forth. Down by three on two different occasions, Epps and Daylen Robinson each hit three pointers to pull UCM even. Robinson’s first three at the 8:21 mark tied the game and his second in a row 1:20 later gave the Mules a 68-65 lead.
Harris drained a three at the other end to tie the game, but Robinson hit another three to put UCM in front 71-68 with 5:31 to play in the game. Deck rebounded a missed free throw on the next trip and put it back in to give Central Missouri a 73-68 lead.
Harris hit one of two free throws on the other end to cut the lead to four and Dyer’s layup with 3:47 to play cut UCM’s lead to 73-71. Hammork drained an open three-pointer to push the UCM lead back to five, but Dyer hit a pair at the line to pull the Hilltoppers within three.
The lead was three at 78-75 following a pair of CJ Hester free throws when UCM turned the ball over on West Liberty’s end of the floor. The Hilltoppers drove to the bucket, but missed the shot and Deck was fouled grabbing the rebound. He hit both free throws to give the Mules a five point lead with 34 seconds to play.
On the next two possessions, the Mules forced turnovers and got run-out layups to seal the win and give head coach Kim Anderson his first national championship and the second in Central Missouri history.
Robinson led UCM with a game-high 21 points. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the Elite Eight. He was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Deck and Hammork, who finished with 16 points and nine points, respectively. Hammork also pulled down 12 rebounds. Epps finished with 11 points off the bench for the Mules.
Dyer and Harris led West Liberty with 19 and 18 points, respectively. Hester had 11 points off the bench. Dyer and Harris were both named to the All-Tournament Team.
The Mules shot 44 percent from the field, 30-of-68, and limited the nation’s No. 1 offense to 45 percent shooting, 28 of 62. The Mules made 11 threes in the game and shot 52 percent from beyond the arc.