By Nick Cammuso
Times West Virginian
It doesn’t get much bigger than this.
Sitting in the second spot in the West Virginia Intercollege Athletic Conference men’s standings and looking to take another step as a program, Fairmont State welcomes NCAA Division II No. 3 West Liberty at 4 p.m. today in a highly anticipated league matchup.
The game will be televised live on ROOT Sports Pittsburgh and is the nightcap of a doubleheader at Joe Retton Arena. The FSU and West Liberty women’s contest gets under way at 1:30 p.m.
Much like the Falcons’ home showdown with Charleston last month, fans are encouraged to wear white as the school will hold a “White Out.” The first 1,500 in attendance will receive free white T-shirts, and students will be treated to complimentary pizza.
West Liberty is vying for its fourth consecutive regular-season championship today. The last team to win at least that many in row were the Falcons under Retton from from 1971-78.
“They understand it’s a great opportunity and one you don’t get too often,” first-year FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said of his team.
Both squads enter play flying high. FSU (18-5, 16-3 WVIAC) is fresh off a tough 81-73 win over third-place Alderson-Broaddus on Thursday. The Falcons, who have won three straight and eight of nine overall, hit a season-best 28 free throws against the Battlers.
“I thought we had unbelievable energy to start the Alderson-Broaddus game, got off to a good start and beat a very good team,” Calhoun said. “This game is very important. We’re still in the hunt for a league championship; that’s our goal. We’re still in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth, and that’s another one of our goals.
“It’s a big game, but at this point of the year they’re all big. We’re really trying to make a run here at the end, and I like where we’re at. Right now, we’re as good as any team in the country.”
West Liberty (23-1, 17-1) avenged its lone loss of 2012-13 against Charleston on Monday with a home 95-77 win, the team’s ninth straight victory overall.
The Hilltoppers, the two-time defending Division 2 Atlantic Region champ, were the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. They also league the league is numerous statistical categories, including:
• Scoring offense (105.8 points per game)
• Scoring margin (plus-28)
• Field goal percentage (51.8)
• 3-pointers per game (11.0)
• Offensive (15.75) and defensive rebounding (27.46)
“I have great respect for them — when they’re supposed to beat a team, they beat them,” Calhoun said. “They have a different style, which is very unique, but I think the thing that people overlook is that they are plus-seven on the glass. They are very scrappy. Every time they have five guys on the court all five guys can make shots.”
And playing with West Liberty and its frenetic way of basketball — pressing on defense, and three after three attempts on the other end — requires a lot of energy.
“They’re gonna press you for 40 minutes, so they try to speed you up and make you play fast,” Calhoun said. “They average 11 3-point shots makes a game, and they do a great job of sharing the ball — they’re very similar to us offensively, very balanced, and have four or five guys in double figures.
“The difference between us and those guys is they’ve been together for three and four years. They’ve been playing together for a long period of time, and that’s a big advantage. They’ve been in the NCAA tournament, so they’ve been in big situations. It’ll be a challenge, but I think our guys will be up for it.”
While Calhoun is worried about the kind of shots West Liberty takes — and the bunch of long offensive rebounds that come with them — he isn’t the least bit concerned about his team’s ability to beat the press.
“We only had 10 turnovers the first game, so the pressure really didn’t bother us,” Calhoun said. “We have very skilled guys who can pass the ball, and Malik (Stith) is as good as any guy in the country at breaking pressure. The pressure really didn’t bother us; what bothered us were the long rebounds.”
West Liberty topped the visiting Falcons, 82-77, in the first meeting back on Jan. 17. The Hilltoppers held a 12-2 scoring edge in the final four minutes of that game after FSU had climbed back and taken the lead late.
“We were right there in the game up at West Liberty,” Calhoun said. “We were up five with four minutes to go and really didn’t take care of business down the stretch. So we’ve got to come out with unbelievable focus and energy (today).”
West Liberty All-American Alex Falk is one of the top scorers in the country at 20.2 points per game. Cedric Harris (17.0), C.J. Hester (12.5) and Chris Morrow (10.4) are also averaging double figures for the Hilltoppers. Hester leads the team on the glass at 8.8 boards per game.
On the women’s side, FSU is looking to extend its winning streak to three.
The Lady Falcons (16-8, 14-5 WVIAC) come into the game after a 59-53 win over Alderson-Broaddus on Thursday night. Hailey Garrett led the way with 15 points and nine rebounds, and Emily Lohr added 11 for the Falcons. North Marion graduate Courtney Swiger came off the bench and hit three 3-pointers to help spark FSU to the victory.
The Hilltoppers (16-6, 14-4 WVIAC) come into Saturday’s game having won seven of their last eight games.
Hillary Southworth leads the conference and is second in the country in scoring, averaging 23.8 points per game. Meghan Wiseman also averages double figures for the Hilltoppers, scoring 14.1 points per game. Liz Flowers is first in the conference and leads the Hilltoppers in assists (5.23)
The matchup features the league’s top-ranked defense (Fairmont State, 62.1 ppg) against the conference’s second-ranked offense (West Liberty, 77.5 ppg).
Email Nick Cammuso at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@NickCammusoTWV.