By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Call it title town.
For the third time in six years, Fairmont State University’s women’s basketball team claimed the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Basketball Tournament championship at the Charleston Civic Center.
Led by tournament most valuable player Kaitlin Snyder’s 18-point and 12-rebound performance, the third-seeded Lady Falcons erased a 12-point second-half deficit and rolled to a 65-54 victory over fifth-seeded Seton Hill.
“It’s amazing,” said Snyder, who also claimed the heart and hustle award at the tournament and passed Kristen Gattuso (2,041) in Saturday’s victory to become the Lady Falcons’ all-time leading scorer with 2,046 career points. “Who wouldn’t want to end their senior year like this? My freshman year when we won it was special, but this one, with me being a senior, has much, much more meaning to me.
“The 2010 team was outstanding, but our team this year has unbelievable team chemistry. I mean that. It’s phenomenal and it’s a big reason we were able to win this title.”
The victory, FSU’s seventh in a row, improved the Lady Falcons to 23-9 overall on the year and earns them a bid in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament which will be played at a site yet to be determined March 15-18.
“I’m awfully proud of our kids,” said veteran FSU coach Steve McDonald, who improved to 3-0 in the league tournament title games. “The last three weeks they’ve played at an extremely high level. I’m telling you 95 percent of the credit for this goes to the players.”
Trailing 32-20 early in the second half Fairmont flicked the switch and became a completely different team than the one that connected on just 9-of-24 field goal attempts and turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 10 times in the first half. Led by sophomores Hailey Garrett, Hallie Gunnoe and Emily Lohr, FSU exploded on a 22-4 run over the course of an 8:18 span to take control of the contest for good at 42-36 with 9:19 left to play.
Garrett, who along with Snyder and Briana Welch was a member of the all-tournament team, finished with 16 points and eight rebounds for the Lady Falcons. Eight of her points came on the 22-4 spurt. Gunnoe, like Snyder, posted a double-double performance in the victory. She ended up with 11 points and 10 rebounds and scored seven of her 11 points on the game-changing run. Lohr, meanwhile, ended with nine points, five of which came on the run.
“It’s kind of hard for me to even remember that but there came a point in the game where everything just started to click for us,” said Snyder. “We defended well. We executed our plays and got the ball inside which is what coach wanted us to do. We basically took the game to them.
“I know Hallie Gunnoe was big for us during that run. She was a spark for us the whole tournament.”
After Fairmont opened its six-point advantage the Lady Griffins, who finished the season at 19-13, never got any closer than four.
“This was a very, very intense game and at times in the second half we didn’t have the ability to score or get stops. We had breakdowns,” said Seton Hill coach Fern Labati. “The big difference was in the first half we had very few turnovers and we executed our game plan. In the second half they were able to force a lot of turnovers and we didn’t control the boards like we did early in the game and as a result the got a lot of second chances and took advantage of them.”
Paige Alviani and Katie Gattuso led Seton Hill with 18 and 13 points respectively. Alviani, who had 11 of her points in the first half, was held to just seven points in the second half by Fairmont State’s Tiffany Nicholson.
“Their number 23 did a great job of playing defense on me,” said Alviani. “She challenged every shot I got.”
FSU shot 58.3 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes (14-of-24), went 14-of-17 at the foul line in the second half. The Falcons also limited themselves to just four turnovers in the second half and ended up out-rebounding the Lady Griffins for the game by seven.
The victory was the third of the season for the Lady Falcons over Seton Hill. The first two meetings were both decided by one point, including a heated FSU win in Greensburg, Pa., just nine days ago.
“There’s no doubt we were motivated to play them today,” said FSU’s Garrett. “But whatever happened between us happened in the past and today our goal was to just come out and play our game. In the second half that’s what we did.”
For McDonald his third time as a WVIAC Tournament champion, was indeed a charm.
“When we came here and won in ‘08 it was special because it was the first time for a long time for the school,” he said. “The one in 2010 when Kaitlin, Tiffany (Nicholson) and Alana (George) were freshman was special too because of the group of kids we had, but this one today might just be the best one of all and in all honestly I can’t really say why. It just feels very, very special.”