By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Second-year Fairmont State University men’s basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun didn’t want to baby his young team heading into the 2013-14 season.
No, Calhoun had other plans.
Instead of opening the season with some so-called “softies” in the Joe Retton Classic to help his squad build confidence and possibly a false sense of self worth, Calhoun threw the Falcons into the pool against quality Atlantic Regional foes Bowie State and Virginia State and told them to sink or swim.
Fairmont responded by swimming.
After rallying in the second half for an 89-79 victory over Bowie State (Md.) University on Saturday in the classic’s first round, FSU came back Sunday, took control early and rolled past Virginia State, 85-77, to start the season 2-0.
“We got exactly what we wanted out of this,” said Calhoun. “I looked at everybody’s schedule in the league and I don’t think anyone has scheduled as hard as we have. We have an unbelievable opportunity next Saturday at Winston-Salem, a top 21-team in the country. That will be our third CIAA opponent and third in-region game in two weeks. Then we have Bellarmine (Ky., a top four team in the country) coming in here in December.
“I can’t be happier getting two wins this weekend, but we have a lot of things we need to work on and a lot of improving to do. We’ve got to be positive with these guys because they are a young group, but we’ve got to go to work each day and get better and better.”
Sunday afternoon Fairmont broke open a close game with Virginia State by mounting a 27-9 run that spanned the last 1:21 of the opening half and the first eight minutes of the second half to give themselves a seemingly comfortable 63-39 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
“We started pressing there so we could turn them over, speed them up and get them playing our style of ball,” said FSU senior forward Brendan Cooper, who posted his second straight double-double performance with 14 points, 10 rebounds and a game-high five assists. “That helped us get on that run.”
But Fairmont knew from Virginia State’s comeback win over West Virginia Wesleyan on Saturday in the classic that the Trojans wouldn’t go away quietly, and they didn’t. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Virginia State clawed its way back into contention and closed the gap to 78-70 on a pair of free throws by James Vann with 2:03 left to play.
On the other end FSU ended nearly a three-minute scoring drought when Cooper found Chase Morgan on the baseline and the junior guard buried his third 3-pointer of the game to push the lead back to 11 and secure the victory for the Falcons.
“Virginia State is a very resilient team, and anyone who watched their game yesterday against West Virginia Wesleyan knows they were down pretty much the whole game and they ended up fighting their way back and winning,” said Morgan, who led FSU with 16 points off of the bench. “We knew they’d put up a fight until the end.
“On that play I saw them double-team Coop and I just went to the corner. He got me the ball and I knocked it down. That’s my job on this team to knock down shots. Give Coop credit. He hit me with a great pass and I just shot it in.”
Calhoun says Morgan has a propensity to hit big shots for the Falcons when they need them.
“Chase always makes big shots,” said Calhoun. “It seems like his baskets are very timely for us. He just has no conscience.”
Morgan and Cooper led five Falcons in double figures in the scoring column in the win. They were joined by Stevie Browning and Caleb Davis, who both finished with 13 points, and Thomas Wimbush, who added 11 off the bench. Eleven of Browning’s 13 points came in the final half.
Virginia State, which fell to 1-1, got 14 points from Lamar Kearse, 13 points and seven rebounds from Allen Harris, and 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds from Amiel Terry.
In the first game of the Classic on Sunday, West Virginia Wesleyan (1-1) used red-hot shooting from 3-point range to topple Bowie State, 81-75. The Bobcats nailed 16-of-30 shots from behind the arc (53.3 percent) and were led by T.J. Thompson, who finished with 24 points, and Brett Ervin and Chris Dewberry, who chipped in 17 points apiece. Those three combined for 13 of Wesleyan’s 16 made 3-point field goals.
Bowie State, which fell to 0-2, got 16 points from Andre Jackson, 13 from Ray Gatling and 10 from Cameron Knox.
Fairmont State’s men will be idle until Saturday, when they visit Winston-Salem (N.C.) State for a 7 p.m. game. The 2-0 and 21st ranked Rams opened the season this weekend with victories over Mountain East Conference opponents Notre Dame College (102-84) and Concord University (76-73).