By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
WEST LIBERTY —
Fourth-seeded Fairmont State University needed to play a near-perfect game to have an opportunity here Sunday evening against No. 1-ranked West Liberty University in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional at the Hilltoppers’ ASRC.
The Falcons didn’t come close to doing that.
The top-seeded Hilltoppers broke open a close game late in the first half with an 11-0 spurt to open a double-digit lead on the Falcons on their way to an impressive 100-77 victory. The 23-point loss was the most lopsided setback of the season for FSU, which ended the year at 23-9.
“It was a tough game,” said first-year Fairmont State coach Jerrod Calhoun, who engineered the biggest turnaround in school history this season by posting 15 more victories than the program had a year ago. “Give West Liberty credit. They’re a tough team and the better team. They’ve proved that this year.
“They’re going to be very hard to beat in this tournament. The teams they’re going to face have no idea of what’s coming. At our level there’s nothing like them.”
The win, West Liberty’s fourth of the season against Fairmont and its 18th in a row this year, improved the Hilltoppers to 32-1 and puts them in their fourth straight regional championship game. West Liberty will face third-seeded Indiana (Pa.) University for the Atlantic Region title in the “Sweet 16” of the national tourney Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the ASRC. The Crimson Hawks (26-5) reached the championship game by virtue of a 53-50 win over seventh-seeded Slippery Rock (Pa.) University on Sunday. West Liberty has won the past two Atlantic Regional titles.
“Fairmont State is a really, really talented basketball team,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, who improved to 21-1 in his career against the Falcons. “Anyone who was here yesterday saw what they’re capable of doing. To win at this margin of 23 points over Fairmont is shocking to me, but I’m glad we’re sitting here right now.
“We played well again. It’s always going to be a battle when you play Fairmont because there’s a lot on the line. Looking at the stats we were plus-10 on the boards, which means we played really hard. I thought we shared the ball well today and I thought for the most part we played pretty good defense.”
Once West Liberty established a double-figure lead on the Falcons, FSU could never recover. The Hilltoppers held a 42-27 advantage at the break and extended it to 21 at 72-51 midway through the final half before Fairmont mounted a final comeback attempt that pulled it within 10 at 76-66 with 7:48 remaining.
However, like West Liberty always seems to do, the Hilltoppers responded to the challenge. Over the course of the next 2:22, West Liberty outscored FSU 16-1 to push its lead to a game-high 25 points.
“That’s typical West Liberty basketball,” said FSU senior guard Isaac Thornton, who finished with 11 points and ended his career seventh in school history with 2,106 points. “Basketball is all about runs and they’re very good at making them. We got behind by double digits and when you do that against them it’s tough to recover. If you don’t get stops on them or make layups and convert against them, they’re going to make you pay for it.”
One day after shooting a season’s best 69 percent in the first half in a victory over Livingstone, FSU shot just 37.5 percent (9-of-24) against the Hilltoppers in the first 20 minutes. The Falcons also got to the foul line 16 times in the opening half, but only converted on nine of those chances.
“I put a real emphasis on driving the ball and trying to get fouled and get to the line tonight,” Calhoun said. “In the first half we got there 16 times, but we missed seven shots and that hurt us. Once we fell behind it was hard for us to recover. We cut it to 10 in the second half, but just fell short.”
West Liberty placed five players in double figures in the scoring column in the victory. Fairmont had six. The Hilltoppers were led by WVIAC player of the year Alex Falk’s 21 points and six assists. West Liberty also got 17 points and seven rebounds from Chris Morrow. All 17 of his points came in the final 20 minutes. C.J. Hester chipped in 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds, while Tim Hausfeld added 13 points and Shawn Dyer finished with 12.
Senior point guard Malik Stith led FSU with 18 points and six assists. Junior forward Brendan Cooper posted his team-leading sixth double-double of the year, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds. The Falcons also got 13 points and seven boards from senior center Isaiah Hill, 11 points from both Thornton and Stevie Browning, and 10 from Ke’Chaun Lewis.