By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Visiting WVU-Tech threw the first punch here Friday evening against Fairmont State at the Joe Retton Arena and never stopped swinging.
For that matter, the Golden Bears never stopped connecting hitting on 45.3 percent of their field goals and 78.6 percent of their free throws as they handed the highly-touted Falcons their first loss of the year, 87-83, in front of over 1,400 somewhat stunned fans.
“They did exactly what we thought they would try to do against us. They spread us out and beat us off of the bounce,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, who watched his team fall to 2-1 on the year. “Their No. 1 (David) Rawlinson is a very good player and their shooter No. 30 (Brandon Burgraff) played terrific. We just weren’t ready to play.
“I’ve got two guys hurt Brendan Cooper and Ke’Chaun Lewis but that’s no excuse. We went down and beat a very good Virginia State team and basically took a game off tonight. When that happens you’re going to lose. We’ve got to get better and we’ve got to get better fast if we’re going to try to make the NCAA Tournament. You can’t lose games like this early in the year. We’re going to try to get it fixed real quick.”
Trailing 5-2 early, Tech (7-2) went on an impressive 24-6 run keyed by Rawlinson, who finished with a game-high 25 points. The run came over a nine-minute span and gave the Golden Bears a 26-11 lead over the Falcons with 8:48 left to play in the opening half.
That’s when FSU senior point guard Malik Stith took matters into his own hands and virtually got the Falcons back into the contest single-handedly. The speedy transfer from St. John’s scored 14 points himself on a 17-2 FSU spurt with allowed the Falcons to tie the game at 28 with 3:07 left in the first half.
“They came out with more intensity than us on both sides of the ball tonight,” said Stith, who finished with a team-high 24 points. “I looked up at the scoreboard at one point and we only had 11 points and they had 26 and for us to be in that situation was unacceptable. I said to myself something’s got to happen.
“At that point I just tried to get the team in the game by being aggressive. Coach tells me to be aggressive and as a senior I was trying to do my job.”
The Falcons actually re-took the lead late in the first half before settling for a one point, 34-33, deficit at the break.
In the second half Tech continued its hot play. Burgraff, who finished with 23 points, got open countless times early and buried four straight threes to help Tech hold the lead. The Golden Bears eventually extended their advantage to as many as 11 twice in the second half the last time at 72-61 with 5:28 left to play but Fairmont refused to fold. Led by Isaiah Hill and Isaac Thornton, FSU clawed its way back into contention and got within two with a chance to tie the contest but couldn’t convert on it.
“We had shots to come back but we could never get over the hump,” said Hill, who finished with 20 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. “We’d get there and then we’d end up doing something bad. We’d foul or they’d hit a shot. We’d get there, but at the end we just couldn’t get it done.”
Thornton, who ended up with 17 points, 13 of which came in the second half agrees. He came up with a crucial steal with FSU trailing by two with 38 second left and on his way to the basket for the potential game-tying layup cramped up and had to throw up an off-balance shot which was off of the mark and Tech cleared the rebound.
“I cramped up there. I really wish I had that play back,” said Thornton, who was visibly upset after the game. “Honestly, though, it shouldn’t have come down to that. We have to play harder.
“The main thing tonight was our defense wasn’t there. We stress that every day but we didn’t have it today. We can’t do that. We have to play good defense every game.”
After Thornton’s miss Tech’s Jaren Marino missed a pair of free throws for the Golden Bears with 34 seconds left, but on the other end Hill was off the mark on a 3-pointer which would have given FSU its first lead of the half and once again Tech cleared the rebound. This time the Golden Bears’ Terrale Clark made 1-of-2 foul shots to give his team a three-point 83-80 lead and on Fairmont’s next possession, Rawlinson stole the ball in the backcourt and got a breakaway layup with 12 seconds left to help seal the victory.
Free throws played a major role in the final outcome. FSU was just 19-of-31 at the charity stripe (61.3 percent), while Tech went 22-of-28 (78.6). In the second half the Falcons were just 11-of-21 at the foul line, while the Golden Bears were 19-of-24.
“I’ll take the blame for that,” said Stith, who was just 6-of-12 at the foul line, including a 3-of-8 performance in the final half. “As a senior in those type of moments you’re supposed to make free throws and I missed a couple at crucial times. I’ll take the blame for that because it definitely would’ve closed the gap for us.”
FSU also shot just 40.6 percent from the field in the loss (28-of-69) and got out-rebounded by the Golden Bears, 45-41.
“I hope our guys learned a lesson tonight and if they didn’t it’s going to be a long year for us,” said Calhoun. “We need to grow up quickly. It doesn’t matter how many new guys we have. We can’t take plays off and we took too many off tonight.”
The Falcons will attempt to bounce back Tuesday evening when they open West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play at home at 7:30 p.m. against Shepherd University.