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Former West Mifflin star Hester notches double-double in D-II championship defeat

| Monday, March 31, 2014, 12:31 a.m.
USC Aiken's Paul Larsen (14) shoots over West Liberty's C.J. Hester, a West Mifflin graduate, during their NCAA Division II semifinal game on Thursday, March 27, 2014, at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. West Liberty beat USC Aiken, 86-83, to advance to the championship game against Central Missouri.

In a tense national championship game, where the lead never was more than five points until the final 20 seconds — and where there were 14 ties and nine lead changes — some poor souls were destined to lose.

C.J. Hester and his West Liberty teammates accepted that fate.

“It's tough getting this far and going home without a championship,” West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said Saturday after the Hilltoppers' 84-77 loss to Central Missouri in the NCAA Division II men's basketball championship game in Evansville, Ind. “These guys are hurting right now. In a few days — well, maybe a few years — they'll look back and be very proud of their accomplishments.”

Hester, the West Mifflin product, among them.

The junior guard had 11 points and 10 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season. But West Liberty, which returned home Sunday to a festive scene in Wheeling, W.Va., matched a season-low in points and saw its Division II-leading scoring average dip below 100 points for the first time all year (99.9).

The Hilltoppers were honored with a parade in Wheeling for their run to the national championship game. West Liberty's season ended with a 31-4 record.

“It was awesome,” Hester said. “Fire trucks, police escorts. Part of the reason I came to West Liberty was because of the support from this community. They have sold out every home game and have a huge following that goes to every away game.

“I can't explain it. I'm very grateful for the people who followed us all year.”

Four busloads of West Liberty faithful made the eight-hour, weekend trip to Evansville.

Hester, West Mifflin's all-time leading scorer, was dejected with West Liberty's title-game loss, but he agreed with Crutchfield's postgame sentiments.

“We made a statement to get to the national championship game,” Hester said. “We lost three 1,000-point scorers from last season, including the national player of the year (Alex Falk), and we made it farther this year. That game (Saturday) was everything you could ask for in a national championship game.”

After Hester cut Central Missouri's lead to 78-75 in the closing minutes with a pair of free throws, the Mules went ahead 80-75 and held on while West Liberty was unable to convert on consecutive possessions.

“We made a nice run,” Hester said. “We clinched the (Mountain East) conference early and we won three tough regional games, including a triple overtime one against IUP.

“That is a very tough program with a lot of Division I transfers.”

Among West Liberty's march to the championship also was a victory over defending national champion Drury in the Elite Eight.

Hester, who spent much of the second half of the season coming off the bench, finished the year averaging 14.2 points and a team-leading 8.4 rebounds.

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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