By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
The old cliché that it’s hard to beat a team three times certainly didn’t hold true in the final West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game here Saturday afternoon at the Charleston Civic Center.
Top-seeded and No. 1 ranked West Liberty, which won a pair of close contests over second-seeded Fairmont State during the regular season, broke open a close game midway through the second half and rolled to a 92-78 victory over the Falcons.
“Fairmont State is obviously a very, very good basketball team,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield. “Right now they’re sky high and for us to take them out in a 14-point win is surprising. It really surprises me. It’s a tribute to our players.”
The win, the third in a row for the Hilltoppers in the league tournament title game, improved West Liberty to 30-1 on the year and guarantees the Hilltoppers will host their third straight NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional which will be held March 16-19.
“They did a tremendous job of getting to the basketball and picking up loose balls,” said first-year FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun. “You’ve got to hold them to one shot because they’re so skilled and we didn’t do that today. We also didn’t make some easy layups which you have to do against them.
“They have five guys on the floor who have been playing together for a long time. They all know each other’s game, they all play very well together and they all understand their roles. That’s a team, I think, which will make a run at a national championship.”
For Fairmont State, which was making its first WVIAC Tournament championship game appearance in 28 years, the loss was disheartening and its largest of the season. Prior to last night’s setback, FSU, which is now 22-8, had not lost a game this season by more than five points.
“It definitely hurts,” said FSU senior Isaac Thornton, who along with teammates Malik Stith and Brendan Cooper were named to the all-tournament team. “This basketball team doesn’t like to lose, but we didn’t come to play tonight and it’s as simple as that. Anytime you give up 92 points to a team like this you’re going to lose.”
Fairmont hung close with West Liberty for the better part of 27 minutes. The Falcons trailed 42-40 at the half and 56-50 with 13:32 left to play. Then, however, Fairmont began to miss shots and the Hilltoppers aggressively attacked the rim at the other end and drew a plethora of second-half foul calls on the Falcons.
Fairmont had six fouls in the first half, but 20 in the second. As a result, West Liberty, which went 0-of-1 at the foul line in the opening 20 minutes, made 32 trips there in the second half and connected on 29 of those opportunities which helped the Hilltoppers open their biggest lead at 76-56 with six minutes remaining before the Falcons mounted a final comeback which got them as close as nine with 2:52 left to play.
“It’s a game of longevity and that’s the way we play uptempo for 40 minutes and eventually I think it wore on them to the point that their defense kind of stopped,” said West Liberty’s Alex Falk, the tournament MVP who scored a game-high 27 points in the victory. “They have a great pressure defense and you could tell it kind of wore down at the end of the game and that was a key.”
Another key was that West Liberty shot nearly 55 percent from the field for the game and out-rebounded the Falcons by eight.
“The thing about West Liberty that I admire which nobody talks about or writes about is they rebound the basketball,” said Calhoun. “That’s one of the big reasons they’ve been so successful and that’s what got us today again. We’re 0-3 against them now so obviously they’re the much, much better team.
“I’m very proud of my guys, though. I’m proud of my seniors for doing a great job of getting us back. We only won eight games last year and we’ve bettered that by 14 this season which is the biggest turnaround in school history. I couldn’t be more happy for what the guys have done.
“Hopefully we’ll get our name called on March 10 and we’ll have another new season.”
FSU, which was ranked fifth in the latest NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Rankings, appears to have done enough with its run to the league tournament title game to secure an at-large bid in the eight-team regional tournament. The bids for that tournament will be announced March 10.
In addition to Falk’s game-high 27 points, West Liberty also got 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds from C.J. Hester, 18 points off the bench from Bubby Goodwin and 12 points from Shawn Dyer. Hester and Dyer were also both all-tournament team selections.
FSU was paced by Thornton and Stith, who both finished with 17 points. Brendan Cooper added 13 points and seven rebounds before fouling out with 7:15 remaining.