By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Heading into its Mountain East Conference opener with visiting West Virginia Wesleyan Saturday afternoon at the Joe Retton Arena unbeaten Fairmont State knew exactly what it had to do to shut down the Bobcats.
And the Falcons did it to near perfection in the first half as they cruised to their fourth straight victory, 70-57.
“I think we gave up one three in the first half,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, whose team improved to 4-0 overall and to 1-0 in the MEC. “They were 1-for-10. They're a good team. That team is going to win games in this league because they can make shots. I told Pat (Beilein, Wesleyan's second-year head coach) at our tournament a couple of weeks ago here that I felt like they were much improved.
“Today I think we played really well defensively, especially in the first half and really took them out of stuff that they wanted to do. In the second half we got a little lackadaisical, but with a young team that's going to happen. We're trying to coach them every possession to try to get them to understand how hard they have to play to compete for a league title.”
Wesleyan entered Saturday's contest first in the MEC in made 3-point field goals with 55 (11.0 per game) and second in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage (42.0). FSU saw first-hand just how deadly the Bobcats could be from long range in the Joe Retton Classic back on Nov. 10 when Wesleyan drained 16-of-30 threes to topple Bowie State, 81-75, at the Falcons' home gym.
“Our assistant coach Mantoris Robinson did a great job with the scout of Wesleyan and preparing us for this game,” said FSU sophomore guard Stevie Browning, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds in Saturday's win. “He really put an emphasis on us guarding the 3-point line, taking away threes and making them drive. He also told us when they did drive to take away the corner threes. We stuck with the game plan today and it worked to perfection.”
While Wesleyan was struggling to get an open look from long range in the first 20 minutes, Fairmont was busy attacking the basket at the other end led by senior forward Brendan Cooper, who finished with a game-high 21 points and eight rebounds. Twelve of Cooper's points came in the first half as he helped FSU open an early 18-6 lead which eventually led to a 34-17 advantage at the break.
“Coach is telling me to straight line drive every time I can because there's not too many people in this league who can guard me,” said Cooper. “I'm going to take advantage of that when it's there.
“Today we were aggressive in the first half and we got to the line a lot and took advantage of those opportunities. If felt good to finally not be the team that was fouling and to be the team getting fouled. We've worked really hard here recently on showing our hands on defense and playing defense with our feet and today it paid off.”
Fairmont was 13-of-17 from the line in the first half, 11-of-16 in the second half and went 24-of-33 there for the game. Wesleyan, on the other hand, was just 2-of-4 at the foul line in the first 20 minutes and ended up just 9-of-14 for the game. The Bobcats were also held well below their season average in made 3-pointers finishing with just six.
FSU shot a sizzling 59.5 percent from the field in the win (22-of-37) and owned a 37-22 advantage on the glass. The Bobcats were held to just 38.9 percent shooting (21-of-54) for the game.
Fairmont, which is attempting to battle through the loss of players Tommy Scales and Chase Morgan (fractured eye socket) for medical reasons, got 10 points from center Martins Abele and seven points from Thomas Wimbush in Saturday's win.
“We had a really, really tough week as a staff,” said Calhoun. “We spent a lot of time in the hospital with Tommy first and then with Chase two nights ago with his eye. We're just trying to do the best we can. We've had a lot of guys really try to step up for us which is good.
“Chase should be back in a few weeks and hopefully we'll be able to get Tommy back as well. Also, Ke'Chaun Lewis turned his ankle in this one and we wanted to take him and get it checked out, but I think he'll be ready for us Monday when we go to Glenville.”
FSU will visit the Pioneers for a 7:30 p.m. showdown Monday at the Lilly Gymnasium.
The Bobcats, who fell to 2-3 overall and to 0-1 in the league, got 16 points from Alexsandar Djordjevic and 11 from former Preston High School standout T.J. Thompson in Saturday's loss.