By Nick Cammuso
Times West Virginian
If you ever wondered what ignited Fairmont State men’s basketball’s red-hot play over the past month or so, look no further than Dec. 15 at Eddie King Gymnasium in Charleston.
Going into the game 4-2 and with new teammates still feeling each other out, the Falcons found themselves. They built a 17-point halftime lead, shut down UC’s explosive offense and ended up with a 71-61 win.
“That game kind of got us going a little bit,” first-year FSU head coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “We had an unbelievable amount of energy, and we’ve kind of been on a roll ever since.”
This can’t be denied, as FSU has won 11 of 13 and eight of nine since that hallmark victory. And now the Falcons and Golden Eagles face off again tonight at the Joe Retton Arena in an anticipated showdown pitting two of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s top teams.
It all gets under way with the women’s game at 5:30 p.m., with the men to follow at 7:30 p.m.
FSU is looking to “Jam the Joe” — and hoping to be the first league school this year with a crowd exceeding 3,000 — and is asking all fans to wear white. The first 1,500 through the door this evening will receive free white T-shirts.
There’s been a lot to cheer about for both Falcon teams this season, as each squad sits in second place in the conference standings. The men have won three straight since a tight loss at No. 1 West Liberty, while the women snapped a three-game losing skid last Saturday.
For the FSU men, 13-4 overall and 11-2 in the league, the theme offensively has been a balanced attack. Four different players are averaging double figures — guard Isaac Thornton (16.9 points per game), forward Brendan Cooper (13.6), center Isaiah Hill (13.5) and point guard Malik Stith (12.9) — while West Virginia natives Stevie Browning and Chase Morgan average around 8 ppg.
Of late, Thornton has taken charge in the scoring department. The senior and returning all-WVIAC selection — who’s the lone Falcon to hit double digits in every game he’s played — has been FSU’s top scorer in each of the past seven contests.
“When you can put five to seven guys in double figures on every given night, you’ve got a very balanced basketball team,” Calhoun said of his team. “The two best teams I was a part of was the West Virginia Final Four team and also the Walsh University national championship team and both of those teams were very balanced.
“We don’t need one guy averaging 25 or 30 — we’re going to do it by committee. And that’s really the way our kids have bought in. We have great passers, great shooters and unselfish kids.”
That unselfishness and ability to quickly mesh together — only five players return from last season’s 8-19 squad — have played a big part in turning the program around in such a short time.
“It took some time. We’ve really worked at it,” Calhoun said. “I’ve got a terrific staff; my staff is very good and very committed to get Fairmont State back.
“As soon we got the job, our No. 1 goal was to recruit and and fund raise, and I think the basketball part of it took off when we started jelling and playing together. That’s really why we’re a good team; we have great camaraderie and good players and they’ve really bought in.”
Tonight, they’ll have to buy into stopping a UC (13-4, 9-4) team with three players — Terrell Lipkins, Xavier Humphrey and Aleksander Kesic — averaging more than 10 points and five rebounds per game.
Lipkins, a junior 6-0 point guard, is the one to watch. He leads five double-digit scorers with 16.8 points, five rebounds and five assists. He’s one of just seven players in the country with a triple double this year and is ranked in the nation’s top 50 in assists and steals.
Charleston nabbed a signature win earlier this month when it upset then national No. 1 West Liberty, 101-96. The Golden Eagles then dropped a pair of conference games to Seton Hill and Wheeling Jesuit before beating Alderson-Broaddus on the road Monday, 69-59.
In UC’s first matchup with FSU, the Falcons used their transition game and defense to take control. They allowed 61 points as Charleston shot 34 percent from the field and made just 5 of 27 3-pointers.
In the game, Isaac Thornton had his only double-double of the season against the Golden Eagles, scoring 18 points and pulling down 11 boards.
“We really rebounded the ball. We were plus-13 on the glass, which was crucial, and did a very good job with our zone defense,” Calhoun said. “Those are going to be some crucial things. We’re going have to stop them in transition, and I think the team that rebounds the ball is going to have a big advantage.
“I’m sure they going to come in with a little chip on their shoulder, so both teams are going to have to come with a lot of energy. I think the team that brings the most energy and rebounds the ball will win.”
FSU leads the all-time series, 60-48. UC won its last trip to Joe Retton Arena, 73-69, during the 2010-11 season.
“They’re excited. Hopefully (tonight) we’ll play our butts off and get a big win.”
While not nearly as much is at stake in the women’s game, the Lady Falcons are looking to stay near the top of the WVIAC and build a winning streak after Kaitlin Snyder’s late basket beat Davis & Elkins on Saturday.
FSU enters play at 12-6 and 10-3 in the league, just behind Glenville State, which is 12-1 in conference.
UC (10-7, 7-6) comes into Thursday’s game riding a three-game winning streak. UC edged Alderson-Broaddus, 64-61, on Monday.
Charleston is just 2-4 on the road; Fairmont State is 7-2 at home.
UC defeated FSU earlier this season, 62-59, on Dec. 15 at Eddie King Gymnasium. The Golden Eagles hit six three-pointers in the second half to erase an 11-point halftime deficit.
Fairmont State has the top-rated defense in the WVIAC, allowing just 62 points per game. Only two opponents have scored more than 80 points against FSU this year — California, Pa., and Glenville State — and both games were Falcon losses.
In all, FSU has held its opponents under 40 percent shooting eight times this year and no one has shot better than 50 percent against the Falcons.
Offensively, the Falcons are led by Snyder. The senior guard and reigning league player of the year is the WVIAC’s fourth-leading scorer (17.0 ppg), but has scored only 17 total points over the past three games.
Former North Marion standout Hailey Garrett isn’t that far behind. She averages 14.0 points and 9.4 rebounds and is second in the conference with eight double-doubles.
Four others — Briana Welch (8.4), Tiffany Nicholson (8.3), Emily Lohr (7.5) and Hallie Gunnoe (6.0) — average better than six points per contest.
Jessi Cowden leads UC with 13.3 points per game. Cowden shoots 41 percent from behind the three-point line.
LeAnne Ross is second on the team with 12.8 points per contest. Chrissy Keir is the other player averaging double figures for UC with 10.8 points per game. Keir also leads the team in assists with 4.4 per game.
Email Nick Cammuso at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter@NickCammusoTWV.