By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Someone didn’t give 15th-seeded Ohio Valley the memo that it was supposed to roll over and play dead in the opening round of the annual West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament Tuesday evening.
Just three days after wrapping up the regular-season with a 48-point loss to Fairmont State at the Joe Retton Arena the last-place Fighting Scots returned to the Friendly City last night and had a lot of fight in their game.
However, in the end it wasn’t enough as second-seeded Fairmont State battled back and recorded a hard-fought 96-85 victory to earn a berth in Thursday’s quarterfinal round at the Charleston Civic Center. FSU will face Seton Hill Thursday at 3 p.m. in Charleston. The Falcons and Griffins split their meetings during the regular season. FSU topped Seton Hill in Fairmont 69-53 on Jan. 7 and then suffered a 76-73 loss to the Griffins in Greensburg, Pa. just last Thursday.
Tuesday’s win improved Fairmont State to 20-7. The Falcons, who were 8-19 last year, recorded a 12-win turnaround this season which is the biggest in school history. The previous high was 11 more wins and was accomplished three times.
Thursday’s rematch with the Griffins in the quarterfinals, though, nearly didn’t come to fruition. Hot-shooting OVU jumped on Fairmont early last night and built an eight-point, 33-25, lead over the Falcons less than 12 minutes into the contest.
“I think it’s really hard to beat a team three times no matter what the scores were the first two times you played,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun. “What I tried to tell my guys is that everybody is 0-0 right now and whoever wins this conference tournament is going to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Every team is excited and has new life.
“For whatever reason we didn’t have that tonight. We didn’t guard the 3-point line and once you let a team get going like that it’s hard to stop them because they have unbelievable confidence. We let them get going early and that’s why this ended up being a tight game.”
Ohio Valley shot 55.6 percent from the field (15-of-27) in the opening half and a season-best 52.7 percent from the field (29-of-55) for the game. The Fighting Scots also buried 13-of-20 3-point field goals in the contest. The 13 threes were also a season-high for OVU.
“They came in here with nothing to lose and I think played probably their best game of the season and just fell short,” said FSU senior point guard Malik Stith, who led FSU with 19 points, five assists and three steals. “I tip my hat to them.
“It’s tournament time. They hit shots. They shot 78 percent from three in the second half. They were 7-of-9. We, on the other hand, missed a lot of shots. A lot of things figured into the way the game went tonight, but you win and advance at this time of the season. Hopefully, we learned something from this one.”
After falling behind early by eight, Fairmont rallied behind Stith, Isaac Thornton and Ke’Chaun Lewis in the final eight minutes of the opening half and outscored OVU 25-10 to take a 50-43 lead at the break.
“We started off slow. We’ve got to stop doing that,” said Lewis, who finished with eight points and a game-high five steals. “That’s what’s killed us this year. (Jerry) Macon, Jr. and (Ashton) Brown both had a helluva game for them. They hit shots and beat us off of the drive.
“Fortunately our pressure forced them to commit a lot of turnovers (a season-high tying 30) and we were able to take advantage of those, especially late in the game. We got three crucial steals there late when it was close.”
In the second half led by Brendan Cooper, who finished with 18 points, 14 of which came in the final 20 minutes, Fairmont extended its halftime lead to as many as 17 before OVU mounted a final run.
“We didn’t come to play in the first half,” said Cooper. “I think we beat them so bad Saturday that tonight they really wanted a piece of us. In the second half we came ready to play and got the win.
“We knew at halftime that we were in a game and that if we lost it we wouldn’t be going to the national tournament and we didn’t want that to happen.”
A late barrage of 3-pointers by the Fighting Scots pulled Ohio Valley to within one at 81-80 with 5:25 remaining. Fairmont, though, regrouped once again and outscored the pesky visitors 15-5 down the stretch to get the 11-point victory.
“There was really nothing that needed to be said to us once they made their final run,” said Stith. “We all understood if we lost this game we were out of the NCAA Tournament. For the seniors and everyone else who really wanted this one there was nothing to be said. It was time to go.
“We got control of the game late in the first half, extended it there early in the second and then held them off. We had three key steals late one by Isaac, one by Ke (Lewis) on a diving play and one by me real late which helped us seal it. The bottom line is when the the game was on the line we made the plays to win it.”
Thornton added 16 points and six rebounds for Fairmont, while Isaiah Hill and Rudy Roberts both chipped in eight points apiece in the victory.
Ohio Valley, which ended the season at 3-26, was led by Jerry Macon, Jr., who finished with a game-high 27 points, 21 of which came off of seven 3-point field goals. Ashton Brown chipped in 20 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.