By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
It took Fairmont State just over 20 minutes to take its first lead over visiting Pitt-Johnstown on Monday night at the Joe Retton Arena.
But once the Falcons got the lead, they never relinquished it en route to an 88-73 victory over the Mountain Cats.
The win improved the second-place Falcons to 17-5 overall and to 15-3 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. It also sets up a big showdown Thursday night in Fairmont at the Joe Retton Arena when third-place Alderson-Broaddus (16-6, 14-4) comes to town for a 7:30 p.m. game.
Monday night, UPJ came out on fire. The Mountain Cats employed red-hot shooting to open a 27-14 lead over the Falcons in the game’s first 11 minutes.
But in the final nine minutes of the opening half, Fairmont, led by senior center Isaiah Hill and senior point guard Malik Stith, clawed its way back into contention and tied the score at 38 at the break.
“For some reason in the beginning of games our tendency is to start out lackadaisical on defense,” said Stith, who combined with Hill to score 17 of the Falcons’ final 24 points in the first half. “When there’s a dead spot in the game I try to be aggressive, and I got a couple of baskets there off of our defense. I found some open lanes there and was able to score the ball.
“When we were down 27-14 coach called a timeout. We realize teams are going to come out and give it their all against us with us being one of the top teams in the league. We’ve got to match their intensity, and early on tonight we didn’t do that. Give them credit, though, because they hit shots. Once we started contesting those shots better, playing with more intensity and really getting on the glass, things changed.”
Indeed they did.
In the second half, Fairmont amped up its defensive pressure and limited the Mountain Cats’ second-chance opportunities. FSU out-rebounded UPJ 45-34 and held the Mountain Cats to just 40 percent shooting in the final 20 minutes compared to the nearly 50 percent field goal shooting UPJ displayed in the first half.
By contrast, Fairmont, which shot just 38.5 percent in the first half, connected on 56.7 percent of its field goals in the second half.
Hill was the catalyst for much of Fairmont’s success. He posted his fourth double-double performance of the season, finishing with a team-high 21 points and 11 rebounds. Stith added 18 points and four assists, while Isaac Thornton recorded a double-double outing as well, finishing with 12 points and a game-high 12 boards.
“In the second half we came out with a lot more energy than we had in the first half,” Hill said. “We knew this was going to be a tough game for us. We’ve been down before and we find ways to battle back. We’re never going to give up.
“In the second half we executed a lot better on both ends of the floor. Defensively we did a better job of guarding them and contesting shots and we rebounded the ball a lot better. That’s what got us going offensively.”
A five-foot jumper by Hill early in the second half gave FSU its first lead of the game. That basket ignited a 16-6 run by the Falcons in the first 5:32 of the second half, which gave them a 10-point lead and control of the contest for good.
“Pitt-Johnstown is very good and very well coached,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun. “They run as good of stuff on offense as anyone I’ve seen. It was a hard-fought game tonight. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Down the stretch everyone is playing hard and playing to win. Every night is going to be a battle.
“We made some defensive adjustments at halftime, which I think helped. We were extended a little too much and they were just throwing it over the top and hitting threes on us. In the second half we played unbelievable defense. To hold a team like that to 73 points is a tremendous job.”
Brendan Cooper added 12 points and seven rebounds for the Falcons, while Chase Morgan chipped in 10 points. FSU also got six points from Stevie Browning and five from Ty Garrison.
UPJ, which had won six of seven games coming into Monday’s contest, fell to 14-9 overall and to 10-9 in the WVIAC. The Mountain Cats were led by Andrew Cressler’s game-high 27 points and nine rebounds. Nick Novak added 13 points for UPJ.
As noted, Fairmont State will host A-B on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and then entertain league-leading and No. 3 ranked West Liberty on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Joe Retton Arena.