By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT — Tonight will be a defining game in the race for the West Virginia Conference women’s basketball title for both Fairmont State and Shepherd University.
The league-leading Lady Rams visit the Joe Retton Arena for a 5:30 p.m. showdown with fourth-place FSU.
The contest is the first of a doubleheader. The men’s teams will battle at 7:30 p.m. in the nightcap.
Shepherd is off to its best start since the 2000-01 season when it began the year 10-3 and finished at 20-7. The Lady Rams are 9-3 overall this year and a perfect 5-0 in WVC play.
After starting the season with losses to Indiana (Pa.) University and California (Pa.) University, Shepherd regrouped and tied the school record for consecutive victories with nine in a row. That streak was ended Monday evening when UDC stunned Shepherd with a 67-47 win. The Lady Rams led that contest 29-26 at the half, but shot just 21.2 percent from the field in the second half (7-of-33).
“Obviously they’ve been playing very well lately,” said FSU senior guard Stevie Beason. “They’re undefeated in the league and they had a nine-game winning streak going until Monday.
“We know we’re going to be facing a good basketball team and a key for us Thursday night will be taking the game to them on both ends of the floor. We have to play well on defense and execute on offense.”
Fairmont State is off to an 11-4 start overall and has a 4-1 record in WVC play. The Lady Falcons, however, have only beaten one team this season (Wheeling Jesuit) with a winning record. The combined record of the opponents FSU has defeated this season thus far is a dismal 42-102 (.291).
“We need to play with some tenacity Thursday night,” said Lady Falcon true freshman forward Jaimie Merinar. “Every aspect of our game needs to be taken up a notch. Shepherd is a good team and we all need to elevate our games to a higher level. We have to do a better job of rebounding, a better job of playing defense, take care of the basketball and execute better on offense.”
Shepherd brings a very balanced attack into tonight’s game. In 12 games the Lady Rams have had nine different leading scorers. Shepherd has no less than nine players who average between 5.7 and 11.6 points per game. The Lady Rams are led by Laura Harkins, a 6-1 junior forward, who averages 11.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. SU also gets 10.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per outing from 6-2 senior center Danielle Costello and 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds from 5-7 sophomore guard Andrea Kauffman.
The Lady Falcons have won the last two meetings between the schools, including an 86-73 victory last year in Shepherdstown.
On the men’s side, Shepherd University brings a 9-5 overall record and a 3-2 WVC mark into tonight’s game with Fairmont State. The Rams, who have lost their last two outings, are currently fifth in the conference.
FSU, on the other hand, has struggled lately. The Falcons have lost three in a row and five of their last seven games after a 5-2 start. Fairmont State is 7-7 overall, but only 1-4 and in 11th place in the league.
The Rams are led by the conference’s seventh-leading scorer Danley Shank, a 6-5 senior forward, who averages 19.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest. Shepherd also gets 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds from 6-6 junior center Barry Cornish and 14.4 points per game from 6-4 senior guard/forward Yves Moliva.
The series is tied at three wins apiece in the last six meetings between the two schools. Shepherd won last year’s contest at home by a 75-71 score.
The last time either team won two in a row in the series was between 1998-2001 when the Falcons won seven straight against the Rams.
By Duane Cochran