By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
Fairmont State tuned up for a showdown with the nation’s No. 1-ranked team with an impressive display of basketball here Monday evening at the Joe Retton Arena.
The Falcons wasted little time setting the tone against visiting West Virginia State. FSU, using a relentless, trapping defense and an aggressive, attacking offense, raced to a double-digit lead less than eight minutes into the game and never looked back as it cruised to an 88-60 victory over the Yellow Jackets.
The win, Fairmont’s fourth in a row and its eighth in nine outings, improved the Falcons to 10-3 overall and to 8-1 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The victory also sets up a showdown Thursday night with No. 1 ranked West Liberty University in West Liberty at the ASRC at 7:30 p.m. The Hilltoppers lost Monday evening for the first time this season, 101-96, on the road against the University of Charleston.
West Liberty, however, still holds a narrow lead over FSU in the WVIAC standings and will still be ranked first in the country until the new national poll is released next week. The Hilltoppers are now 14-1 overall and 8-1 in the league. They have a league power rating of 122.22. FSU, which is second in the conference, has a power rating of 121.11. The winner of Thursday’s game will be the No. 1 team in the league.
West Liberty is 17-1 against Fairmont State since Jim Crutchfield took over as the Hilltoppers’ head coach in 2004.
Monday night, Fairmont played arguably one of its best all-round games of the season. Led by Isaac Thornton, who scored 18 of his game-high 26 points in the opening half, FSU raced to a 49-31 lead over the Yellow Jackets at the break.
“Coming into this game we knew West Virginia State was going to be a big challenge for us,” Thornton said. “Their record doesn’t show that they’re a good team, but they’re very athletic. Every game from here on out is very important for us, but we wanted to come into this one tonight and make sure we took care of business before heading to West Liberty.”
The Falcons definitely took care of business. They shot 59.6 percent from the field as a team (34-of-57), threw down a plethora of dunks, out-rebounded the Yellow Jackets by four, held State to 43.1 percent shooting (22-of-51) and forced 22 turnovers in the win.
“We’ve gotten a lot better as a team here lately,” said first-year FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun. “Our kids have really bought into what we’re doing. It starts with our veterans and seniors and the leadership they’re providing for us. Right now they’re doing a great job.
Fairmont has held its last four opponents to 60 points or less.
In the second half Monday, Isaiah Hill got going for the Falcons. He scored 15 of his 25 points in the final half and also grabbed a team-high seven rebounds.
“It was very fun for me out there tonight,” Hill said. “It’s fun for me every time I laced them up, but we really just wanted to get our crowd going tonight, get them behind us and show them that we have improved a lot as a team.”
Brendan Cooper added eight points and five rebounds for the Falcons, while Stevie Browning also chipped in eight points.
State, which fell to 6-9 overall and to 4-6 in the league, was led by Jalen Walker’s 15 points. The Yellow Jackets got 12 points from Anton Hutchins and 11 points and 11 rebounds from Raymon Austin.
The victory was just the second for FSU over West Virginia State in their last seven meetings.