By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
Visiting Wheeling Jesuit gave Fairmont State a dose of its own medicine in terms of staunch defensive play Monday evening at the Joe Retton Arena and the result was a bitter, 70-65, loss for the Falcons.
Wheeling’s extended 2-3 zone gave Fairmont’s offense fits for 33 minutes. However, down the stretch, FSU, led by Chase Morgan, nearly pulled off the improbable. Morgan keyed a 13-0 Falcon run over a span of just 2:31 late in the game to help his team erase a 15-point deficit and pull within two at 61-59 with 4:25 left to play.
“At that point in time Coach looked at me and said we need some kind of spark,” Morgan said. “I knew coming in I could shoot the ball and get some points to try to get the crowd back in the game and get them behind us. When they get behind us we’re a really tough team to beat.
“Shots just started falling for me there, the crowd got back in it and we were able to come back, but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough tonight.”
Fairmont eventually did take a short-lived 64-63 lead on a driving layup by Malik Stith with 2:23 remaining, but the Falcons couldn’t hold it. The Cardinals re-took the lead for good on a wide open layup by Justin Fritts at the 1:51 mark and then extended it to 68-65 when Ben Siefert got a wild
layup from underneath the basket in heavy traffic to somehow fall. Siefert was fouled on the play and made the free throw to give his team a three-point advantage with just 40 seconds showing on the clock.
At the other end, Morgan, who scored all 10 of his points on the crucial 13-0 run, got a good look at a three from the corner, but it wouldn’t fall. He gathered in his own rebound after a mad scramble and FSU called timeout with 16 seconds left.
Fairmont’s last chance to tie came when WJU’s defense forced Stith to take a heavily pressured three from the wing, which was off the mark with two seconds left. The Cardinals’ Eric Siefert cleared the rebound and was fouled with two-tenths of a second remaining. He sank both free throws to secure the five-point win for Wheeling.
“You’ve got to give Wheeling credit,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, whose Falcons fell to 15-5 overall and to 13-3 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with the loss. “They came in here fired up and ready to go. I told our guys they were one of the hottest teams in the league along with us and West Liberty. In the first half we just weren’t ready to go for whatever reason. We were flat.”
While Fairmont settled for perimeter shots against Wheeling’s zone early, the Cardinals shredded the Falcons’ man-to-man defense and got a plethora of layups and easy baskets to open a 42-29 lead at the break.
“They came out and shot like 60 percent from the field in the first half, and it’s tough to beat anyone when they’re shooting that percentage,” Morgan said.
In the second half Wheeling extended it to as many as 15 on a couple of occasions before Fairmont mounted its thrilling comeback bid.
“We knew it was going to be a dog fight and we knew they’d make a run at us because they’re a very talented team,” said WJU coach Danny Sancomb, whose team has now won six of its last seven outings and improved to 12-8 overall and to 9-7 in the WVIAC. “They’re well coached and they play hard. When they started making some shots down the stretch I just kept telling our guys that we had to stick with our game plan and trust what had gotten us the lead.
“We just had to find a way to weather the storm, and luckily we were able to do that. Our leadership was great out there tonight and we did a good job of taking care of the basketball and not getting rattled.”
Wheeling was led by Ben Siefert, who finished with a game-high 19 points and eight rebounds. The Cardinals also got 15 points from Joe Prati, 12 from Fritts and 11 from Ricardo Gaddy.
FSU, which lost for only the second time in 12 games and saw its five-game winning streak halted, was led by Isaac Thornton and Isaiah Hill, who both finished with 16 points. Fourteen of Hill’s points came in the opening half, while Thornton got 11 of his in the second stanza.
The Falcons will take a couple of days off and try to get back on the winning track when they visit West Virginia State on Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. contest in Institute.
“Hopefully we’ll learn from this one,” Calhoun said. “There’s still a lot of games left to be played. Our goal is to win the league championship and right now that’s going to be very difficult for us, but we’ll go back to the drawing board Thursday and see what happens.”