By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Twenty minutes into Saturday night’s Mountain East Conference semifinal-round showdown between top-seeded and No. 3 ranked West Liberty and fourth-seeded Fairmont State here at the Charleston Civic Center the Falcons looked down and out.
The Hilltoppers played a masterful first half and clicked on a cylinders as they dismantled FSU and raced to a 50-32 halftime lead.
But Fairmont, if anything, is resilient and showed that in the final 20 minutes, battling back from the 18-point deficit to cut the margin to just two with 6:22 remaining before it wound up falling, 97-87.
“I told the guys at halftime we can either be remembered as quitters or as fighters,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, whose squad fell to 20-10 with the loss. “We went down fighting.”
Indeed the Falcons did.
Many on hand felt the game was over and that West Liberty would cruise in the second half. Things appeared even more bleak when FSU standouts Brendan Cooper and Thomas Wimbush both took seats on the Fairmont bench with four fouls apiece with well over 13 minutes remaining.
But the Falcons’ Chase Morgan and Stevie Browning put the team on their backs and drained tough shot after tough shot to pull their squad back into contention.
“We just made some shots,” said Browning, who led FSU with 24 points, including 11 in a span of 7:24 when the Falcons cut a 16-point lead down to three. “We were trying to carry us, but what hurt us is we couldn’t get a stop against them when we had to have one.”
Morgan, meanwhile, finished with 18 points, all of which came in the second half. He buried six 3-pointers in just over seven minutes. His last one came with 6:22 left and got FSU to within 77-75.
“At halftime we knew we had to step up and play better,” said Morgan. “Stevie and I hit some shots which got us going and our crowd back in it, but we just fell short.
“You can’t turn the ball over against West Liberty like we did tonight. We just dug ourselves a big hole early.”
FSU suffered 14 turnovers in the first half and 19 for the game. The Hilltoppers, on the other hand, had just six. West Liberty outscored Fairmont 37-2 in points off of turnovers.
“We certainly came out of the blocks tonight and played very well in the first half,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, whose team improved to 26-2 and earned a berth in the MEC Tournament title game Sunday at 3:30 p.m. against second-seeded Charleston (20-8). “It was one of our best halves of the season.
“In the second half they just made some very difficult shots. It wasn’t that we were playing bad defense either. Chase Morgan and Stevie Brown just made tough shot after tough shot with hands in their faces. There really wasn’t a lot we could do. They made a great run on us. Our job was to hang in there and not do stupid things with the basketball and then just play defense as hard as we could. Playing hard makes up for a lot of things. It definitely got a little hairy, though.”
After FSU closed to within two, West Liberty re-grouped, got some stops and ended up outscoring the Falcons 20-12, including 13-7 in the last 2:08.
Wimbush and Shammgod Wells added 14 points apiece for Fairmont, while Trevor Andrews-Evans chipped in nine points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
The Hilltoppers got 25 points from C.J. Hester, 24 from Cedric Harris, 15 from Shawn Dyer and 11 apiece from both Devin Hoehn and Keene Cockburn.
The Falcons will find out their fate for the rest of the season Sunday evening when the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament bids are announced. Calhoun feels his team’s chances of earning an at-large bid are good.
“We’re hoping to get a bid tomorrow night,” he said. “I certainly think our league deserves to get four teams in. If we do it will be the first time in 14 years that our program has gotten back-to-back bids to the national tournament.”