CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even the No. 1 team in the country will have to scratch and claw to win its conference tournament.
And so it goes for the West Liberty men's basketball team, which survived a staunch effort from Pitt-Johnstown on Thursday night to secure a 78-66 victory in the West Virginia Conference quarterfinals at the Charleston Civic Center.
The Hilltoppers (28-1) move to the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. today against rival Wheeling Jesuit (19-9), which eliminated the University of Charleston 72-62 earlier on Thursday.
It marks the seventh consecutive year West Liberty has reached the semifinals. The Hilltoppers seek their fourth straight tournament title and last lost in the semis in 2009 - the year Pitt-Johnstown won the tournament championship. In 2008, UPJ eliminated West Liberty in the semifinals.
"We played Johnstown last week and we both shot the lights out," West Liberty Coach Jim Crutchfield said. "Tonight was a completely different game."
West Liberty, which defeated the Mountain Cats (15-13) by a 98-83 count on Feb. 21, was playing its second consecutive game without starting guard Cedric Harris.
Harris separated his shoulder and is expected to be out at least until the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region tournament, which will be at West Liberty's Academic, Recreation and Sports Complex in a little more than two weeks.
The Hilltoppers, who returned their top eight scorers from last season's Elite Eight team, won their seventh straight WVC tournament game.
Pitt-Johnstown, in its last game before joining the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference next season, didn't make it easy on the Hilltoppers.
The Mountain Cats came into the game as the top team in Division II in 3-point field goal percentage (44.1), but made only 1-of-10. Still, they trailed just 48-43 with 15:38 left following an Andrew Cressler jumper and only 57-51 four minutes later.
A free throw from Bubby Goodwin and two more from WVC Player of the Year Alex Falk extended the lead to nine.