By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
It’s only fitting that the team which once dominated the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference will be playing in the league’s last men’s basketball tournament championship game.
Like its female counterparts did earlier in the day here Friday at the Charleston Civic Center, Fairmont State’s second-seeded men’s basketball team earned a trip to the title game by virtue of a thrilling 75-74 overtime victory over third-seeded Alderson-Broaddus.
The championship game appearance is the first for the Falcons in 28 years. FSU, which has won 10 league tournament crowns, last played for the title in 1985, but lost to West Virginia Wesleyan 72-66. Fairmont’s men and women haven’t both been in title games in the same tournament since 1984 when both squads won championships.
“It’s unbelievable this is the last year of the league and Fairmont State has a chance to bring two titles back to Fairmont,” said first-year FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, whose team improved to 22-7 with Friday’s win. “We can’t be happier for (FSU women’s head coach) Steve (McDonald) and his team and I’m really, really happy for my kids. We’re going to try to get one more.”
Fairmont will face West Liberty, the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, this afternoon in the title game at 3:30 p.m. The 29-1 top-seeded Hilltoppers rolled past fourth-seeded Wheeling Jesuit last night, 92-73.
Fairmont’s win didn’t come without some controversy. A-B tied the game at 74 with 6.7 seconds left in overtime on a driving layup by Malcolm Tatum. On the play Tatum was foul by Fairmont’s Chase Morgan. Tatum missed the free throw and FSU’s Isaac Thornton grabbed the rebound and raced to the other end of the floor in an attempt to attack the rim. He was fouled just inside the foul line in the paint by the Battlers’ Richard Lemon with nine-tenths of a second remaining. Thornton stepped to the line and made the first and ultimately the game-deciding free throw, but missed the second. On the rebound, A-B’s Casey Ainslie made a desperation two-handed heave from 80 feet which hit the right side of the backboard about a foot right of the rim.
“Isaac has really grown as a player and he knows what he’s supposed to do in that situation,” said Calhoun. “He supposed to get that thing to the rim. I think you force officials to make calls. I think it was a foul. I’ll go back tonight and watch the tape. Whoever had the ball last tonight was going to win this game.”
Thornton, who admittedly struggled in the contest against A-B’s stifling 2-3 zone, finished with 14 points — all of which came in the second half and overtime.
“At the free throw line coach tells us to box out and we missed a couple of assignments both early and late in the game,” said Thornton. “The ball came off and I rebounded the ball and coach tells us when you get the ball in that situation off of a miss get it to the rim. That’s what I tried to do.
“The whole game I had a bad game. I got in early foul trouble and when I stepped to the line there at the end I just wanted to make up for it and come through for my team. When the one went down it was a blessing.”
Veteran A-B coach Greg Zimmerman didn’t see it that way.
“I’m not pleased at all,” said a visibly upset Zimmerman in his post-game press conference. “What do you want me to tell my players? I’ve got kids crying in the locker room. You make a call with nine-tenths of a second left? All I’m saying is let the players decide the game. I just wanted a fair deal and I don’t think we got it. Our kids played their tails off.”
Indeed the Battlers did, but so did the Falcons. Despite having starters Thornton, Malik Stith and Isaiah Hill all on the bench with two fouls for the final 8:11 of the opening half, Fairmont’s reserves were able to build a 34-25 lead at the break.
In the second half, the Falcons quickly got the lead to 12 at 40-28 on a dunk by Thornton with 17:35 remaining. But after that A-B stormed back thanks to five 3-point field goals, three of which came in the final 5:44 of regulation.
“Our kids aren’t quitters,” said Zimmerman. “I knew they wouldn’t lay down. We’ve never laid down.”
In overtime A-B quickly built its largest lead of the game at 67-63 but 3-point field goals by Chase Morgan and Thornton knotted the score again at 69 with 1:54 left. After that the team’s took turns trading the lead until Thornton’s foul shot ultimately decided it in FSU’s favor.
“Our kids just refused to lose tonight,” said Calhoun.
Brendan Cooper led Fairmont State with 19 points and seven rebounds. The Falcons also got 17 points from Stith, nine from Morgan and eight from Stevie Browning.
“This win was big for us,” said Stith. “We talked before the game and we knew it wasn’t just for us, it was for all of the people who traveled here and because of the history of the school. With this being my first year in the league and learning how family-oriented Fairmont State is to be playing for a championship is exciting.”
A-B, which fell to 20-9 and will await word on whether or not it will receive an at-large berth to the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional, was led by Ainslie’s 15 points. The Battlers, who outrebounded FSU in the game 45-30, also got 14 points and 10 rebounds from Adam Kline, 12 points from both Kurklin Bohanon and Tatum and 10 points from Roy Brown.