After three straight seasons falling just short of the finals, Keene Cockburn and West Liberty’s senior class finally got to the NCAA Division II men’s basketball national championship game, but it couldn’t cap its historic run with a long-coveted title.
The North Ridgeville graduate did his part with eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks Saturday, but No. 7 West Liberty couldn’t overcome a late rally by No. 20 Central Missouri and lost 84-77.
“It was definitely surreal,” Cockburn said. “I couldn’t really believe I was playing for a national championship. It was definitely the experience of my life.”
Cockburn and his classmates will leave West Liberty with a 130-10 record, 84-4 in league play, four straight trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight and three berths to the Final Four.
The Hilltoppers lost to the University of Charleston, 63-60, on March 9 in the inaugural Mountain East Conference Championship game, which was the only conference tournament loss the senior class had.
The Class of 2014 sealed its fourth straight regular-season conference championship and had won the last three tournament titles, but competed in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference the previous three years.
“After all the success that we’ve had here, I’ve been able to be a part of it every year,” Cockburn said. “It’s definitely great.”
Cockburn has been a fixture in the Hilltoppers’ lineup all season. After just 83 appearances in his first 105 games, four of them starts, he was one of two players to start all 35 games, averaging 27.2 minutes.
He was second in the nation with a team-leading 99 blocks and was second on the team in rebounds, averaging 7.1. He was fourth in scoring with 11.5 points per game, shot just over 50 percent from the field and about 34 percent from 3-point range.
He broke the single-season record for blocks March 9 with two in the MEC championship. The previous record was 75.
Naturally, he was a big part of West Liberty’s tournament run, snagging at least eight rebounds every game. Against South Carolina Aiken in the national semifinals Thursday, Cockburn snagged 13 rebounds, adding four points and a block. In the Elite Eight last Wednesday he had 13 rebounds, a block and six points against Drury.
In the second round on March 16, he nearly had a triple-double with 10 rebounds, nine blocks and eight points in an 86-85 triple-overtime win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
He followed that performance with a double-double in the Sweet 16 on March 18 against East Stroudsburg University — the Atlantic Region’s top seed and at the time the No. 2 team in Division II. Cockburn had 17 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
“The national tournament at the end is going to be one of the most memorable things in my life,” said Cockburn, who blocked 22 shots in the NCAA Tournament. “Not many people get to do it.”