Times West Virginian
The 13-day layoff for Fairmont State University’s men’s basketball team proved to be rewarding.
That’s because Saturday night here at the Eddie King Gymnasium against highly-touted Charleston, Fairmont put on a basketball clinic for 32 of the game’s 40 minutes and rolled to a 71-61 victory over the stunned Golden Eagles.
FSU, which improved to 5-2 overall and to 3-1 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, employed a smothering first-half defense and a relentless attacking and efficient offense to open a 17-point, 44-27, halftime lead over UC. Eight minutes into the second half Fairmont had extended its lead to as many as 21 before the Golden Eagles mounted an impressive late rally buoyed by Fairmont miscues to make it a bit more interesting.
“This win was big for us,” said first-year FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun. “We let a couple of games slip away from us earlier this season and now I think this group of guys is understanding that we’ve got to get better every single day in practice. All 19 guys we have in our program really dedicated themselves to getting better during the 13 days that we had off.
“Last week we didn’t worry about Charleston. We worried about us and trying to get better at what we needed to do. This week we prepared for Charleston. I thought Malik (Stith) and Isaac Thornton were tremendous for us tonight with their leadership on the court. If we play like this defensively we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.
“The 13 days off really helped us come together. We’re a young team with seven freshmen and three or four transfers so we needed some time to jell and come together and to get a win like this over a program which was 26-7 last year and made it to the NCAA Tournament is huge for us.”
Fairmont’s defense held UC’s offense 30 points under its season average and frustrated the Golden Eagles for much of the game. Charleston shot just 33.8 percent from the field in the loss (23-of-68), including a mere 18.5 percent from 3-point range (5-of-27). The Falcons also outrebounded the Golden Eagles by 13.
“We got punched in the mouth tonight and took it,” said UC coach Mark Downey. “We just covered up and took it and that disappoints me. It’s my fault. I’ve got to fix it and I will.”
With the score tied at nine five minutes into the game Fairmont exploded on a 14-0 run during the next four minutes to take control of the game for good. Isaac Thornton led FSU with his first double-double performance of the season. He finished with season highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds. Sixteen of his points came in Fairmont’s dominating first half.
“We knew this game was a huge for us,” said Thornton. “We wanted to match their intensity and get after them. Whoever lost this game was going to 2-2 in the league and we didn’t want to let that happen to us.
“As for me, I just tried to be more aggressive and my teammates did a good job of finding me and getting me the ball. Coach has told me he needs me to get eight or nine rebounds a game so I really tried to get aggressive on the glass and it paid off.”
Leading 63-44 with 7:50 remaining Fairmont went conservative and tried milking the clock and the move nearly backfired on the Falcons. UC reeled off 12 unanswered points over the course of 2:48 to close within seven at 63-56 with 5:02 left to play.
“This was the first time all year we were in a situation like that and we probably should’ve stayed on the attack and kept being aggressive,” said Calhoun. “I wanted to run some clock. That situation is only going to make us better. They came back, but we didn’t crumble.”
With Fairmont in the midst of a scoring drought which lasted for over four minutes senior point guard Malik Stith came up big for the Falcons scoring back-to-back baskets in a 27-second span to quickly push the lead back to double digits.
“We were in a dry spell,” said Stith. “Every team has them in games. We had to respond. Whether it was me scoring or me setting up one of my teammates to score we needed a bucket. I was open and hit the first jumper and on the second one they were pressing and overplayed me. I saw the lane and took it to the hole and got the layup. After that we got on a little roll and put it away.”
Stith finished with 14 points and six assists for FSU, while Isaiah Hill added 16 points and eight rebounds. No less than 14 of Hill’s points came in the second half for Fairmont. The Falcons also got nine points from Steve Browning, seven points, seven rebounds and eight assists from Brendan Cooper and seven points from Chase Morgan.
UC, which dropped to 5-2 overall and to 2-2 in the league with the loss, got 19 points from Aleksander Kesic and 18 from Terrell Lipkins. Kesic recorded 15 of his points for UC in the final half.
Fairmont State will be idle now for the holidays until a 4 p.m. Dec. 30 road game against NCAA Division I Kent State.