Times West Virginian
WEST LIBERTY —
Fairmont State took the nation’s No. 1 ranked team to the wire here Thursday evening but in the waning minutes the Falcons faltered and West Liberty escaped with a hard-fought 82-77 victory at the jam-packed ASRC.
With just over four minutes remaining Fairmont held a five-point, 75-70, lead over the Hilltoppers and their stunned fans who were hoping not to see their team lose back-to-back games for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
Instead West Liberty, which lost for the first time this season Monday evening on the road at the University of Charleston, did what it has done countless times in recent years in difficult circumstances. It found a way to prevail.
The Hilltoppers outscored FSU 12-2 in the game’s final 4:11 to improve to 15-1 overall, 9-1 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and retain the top spot in the league standings.
“That’s a really tough team,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield of Fairmont. “We played as hard as we could tonight. We played as hard as we could Monday night (the loss to UC) and we’re going to play as hard as we can Saturday in our next game. That’s really all we know how to do.”
Fairmont State, which saw its five-game winning streak halted with the loss, fell to 10-4 overall and to 8-2 in the league.
“I thought we had them where we wanted them being up five and they made some plays there at the end,” said a disappointed FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun. “I can’t be prouder of my team, though, for the way they battled back tonight.
“It’s tough playing against them because you can’t really simulate how fast they play. The good thing is we’ve got another chance at them when they come to our place in February. I think the guys will be pretty excited about that.”
The Hilltoppers will visit Fairmont for a rematch on Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. at the Joe Retton Arena.
West Liberty bounced back from its 101-96 setback Monday evening at the hands of UC with a solid first half Thursday night which saw the Hilltoppers take a 50-41 lead into the break against the Falcons.
In the second half, however, FSU settled in and slowed down the nation’s leading scoring team holding them to just 32 points.
As noted 12 of those points came in the last 4:11. Prior to that Fairmont had held West Liberty to just 20 points in nearly 16 minutes of action.
“When we’re playing defense well I think we have the potential to be as good as anyone in the country,” said Calhoun. “I don’t think there’s too many teams in our league who can hold them to 32 points in a half.”
West Liberty’s game-winning rally started with a wild, reverse layup follow-up basket by Cedric Harris which hung on the rim for a while before falling through. He got fouled on the shot, made the free throw and cut the margin to just two.
“We were up five and they hit that tough and-one basket and hit the free throw and it got the crowd back in it,” said Fairmont’s Brendan Cooper, who finished with 13 points, a game-high 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. “That gave them some momentum and they fed off of it.”
A little later West Liberty’s Chris Morrow got another circus-style layup to go down to tie the game at 75. The Hilltoppers then took a 79-75 lead with 2:02 left to play when Alex Falk followed up a miss with a bucket and C.J. Hester connected on a pair of free throws.
FSU’s lone points in the final four minutes came on a driving basket by Ke’Chaun Lewis with 1:37 remaining to make it 79-77. After Fairmont forced West Liberty’s uncharacteristic 18th turnover of the night, Isaac Thornton, who led the Falcons with a game-high 22 points and six rebounds, got a good look at a 3-pointer with 48 seconds left but the ball went in-and-out and West Liberty cleared the rebound. On the other end diminutive West Liberty senior point guard Tim Hausfeld, who had been a thorn in the Falcons’ side his entire career, nailed a long 3-pointer with 33 seconds left to seal the victory.
“This loss definitely hurts because it was a game we had been looking forward to for a couple of weeks,” said Cooper. “We lost the game. I wouldn’t say they beat us. We had them at the end and let it get away.”
FSU got 12 points and six rebounds from Isaiah Hill in the loss. Lewis and Malik Stith added 10 points apiece for the Falcons.
West Liberty, which won for the 18th time in 19 meetings with FSU, was led by Harris’ 20 points, 11 of which came in the second half. Falk chipped in 18 points and nine rebounds, while Morrow finished with 14 points and Hausfeld added a dozen.
Fairmont State returns to action Saturday with a 4 p.m. road game in Shepherdstown against Shepherd University. The Rams defeated the Falcons earlier this season in Fairmont, 93-90.