FAIRMONT — Third-ranked West Liberty University clinched its fourth straight West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season basketball championship here Saturday afternoon at the Joe Retton Arena in front of more than 3,500 fans and a live television audience.
The powerful Hilltoppers jumped on second-place Fairmont State early and then held off a gallant second-half comeback bid by the Falcons to record a 103-99 victory.
The win, West Liberty’s 10th in a row, improved the Hilltoppers to 24-1 overall, to 18-1 in the WVIAC and made veteran coach Jim Crutchfield smile a little more than usual.
“Boy this atmosphere here today was great,” said Crutchfield, whose team still has three regular-season conference games remaining. “I grew up in Clarksburg and was a Fairmont State fan. My brother (Mike) was on Joe Retton’s teams and I remember coming to games back in their heyday and cheering them on.
“Today when I walked in here I was impressed with the crowd. There’s a lot of excitement here for basketball and it’s nice to see that type of atmosphere once again at Fairmont State. I’m not too wild about what you’ve got to do to win a game here now because it’s tough, but today we got it done and wrapped up our fourth straight conference championship. To be honest I can’t think of a better place to do than here in Fairmont against a team which was king of this conference for a long time.”
West Liberty wasted little time Saturday showing anyone why it’s one of the top teams in the country. The Hilltoppers shot lights out in the opening 10 minutes of the game to build a number of 12-point advantages against the Falcons. West Liberty started the game 12-of-16 from the field (75 percent).
“That’s kind of been the story for us all season,” said FSU senior point guard Malik Stith. “It came back to bite us today. We allow teams to build big leads and then have to fight back. When you give the No. 3 team in the country a big lead like we did it’s hard to come back.
“Today, they were the better team. Give them credit. We’ve just got to go back to work and get better.”
Junior guard Cedric Harris was the catalyst for West Liberty early in the game. He went 7-of-9 from the field, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range in the first half when he tallied 19 of his team-high 25 points. His efforts helped the Hilltoppers take a 50-40 lead at the break.
“They played a terrific game,” said FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun of West Liberty. “To go on the road and win the conference championship at our place with a performance like that – hats off to them.”
In the second half Fairmont State’s Isaac Thornton and Stith almost single-handedly got the Falcons back in it. Thornton, who has never beaten West Liberty during his storied career, scored a career-high 44 points in the loss – 26 of which came in the second half. He also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. Thornton’s 44 points are the most points scored by a men’s player in the league this season. They were also just three points shy of tying the FSU men’s school record of 47 for points in a single game which was set by both Dave Miller and Marvin Rashad.
Stith, on the other hand, added a career-high 28 points – 18 of which came after the break.
Thanks largely to the efforts of those two Fairmont whittled West Liberty’s lead to just two at 64-62 with 12:08 left to play.
“It was crucial for us to get that big lead early because after that it kind of became a scoring fest,” said Crutchfield. “We obviously need to go back to the drawing board on defense after this one. Part of it tonight was us and a lot of it was Fairmont. They’re hard to stop. They’ve got guys who get a head of steam and head to the bucket and score.”
After Fairmont drew within two, West Liberty never got rattled. Instead the Hilltoppers, who made 11-of-18 3-pointers in the win compared to just 2-of-6 by the Falcons, exploded on a 19-7 run over the course of the next six minutes to push the lead back to 14. After that FSU never got closer than the final margin of four.
“It was our fourth game in seven days, but that’s not an excuse,” said Calhoun. “I thought we had some tired legs halfway through the second half. I thought Isaac gave us everything he could today and I thought Malik gave us everything he could today. I think Isaiah (Hill) and Coop (Brendan Cooper) struggled some today with their pressure. That’s why we went to an all-guard lineup there late against them which worked pretty well.”
Hill and Cooper combined to go just 6-of-20 from the field in the loss and combined for just 13 points and 12 rebounds. Cooper scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds, but turned the ball over five times.
West Liberty, on the other hand, ended up shooting 59 percent from the field for the game (30-of-51) compared to just 46.7 percent by the Falcons (35-of-75). The Hilltoppers also placed five players in double figures in the scoring column led by Harris’ 25. Alex Falk chipped in 21 points for West Liberty, Shawn Dyer and Seger Bonifant both came off the bench and scored 20 and 17 points respectively and Chris Morrow, who was plagued by foul trouble for much of the contest, added 11.
Fairmont State, which fell to 18-6 overall and to 16-4 in the WVIAC, will be idle until Thursday when it visits Greensburg, Pa., for a 7:30 p.m. meeting with dangerous Seton Hill University. The Falcons, who remained in second place in the league standings despite its loss to West Liberty Saturday, defeated the Griffins earlier this year, 69-53.