MEC Men's Basketball: Semifinal Recaps (March 5)
West Liberty 117, No. 4 Fairmont 96 | Final Stats
By Shawn Rine for MountainEast.org
WHEELING, W.Va. – When observers think about West Liberty men’s basketball, often the first thing that comes to mind is the high-scoring nature of the games. But Coach Ben Howlett views things a bit differently.
The stats that jump off the page are assists, points in the paint and field-goal percentage. Saturday night in a Mountain East Conference Tournament semifinal at WesBanco Arena, the top-seeded and No. 2-ranked Hilltoppers (28-2) checked all the right boxes – including the one on their side of the scoreboard.
WLU shot 58.1 percent including a tournament-record 43 made field goals, handed out 22 assists and amassed 62 points in the paint on their way to a dominating victory that is their 14th straight and gives them a spot in Sunday’s title contest for the sixth time in the last nine seasons.
Pat Robinson scored 27 points to lead six double-figure scorers as West Liberty made 13 of its first 20 shots and led for all but the game’s first 12 seconds.
“This was for a spot in the conference championship and also it was against Fairmont State. When we get matched up with those guys it doesn’t take much to get our players motivated,” Howlett said. “Going back to (Friday), that first half may have been our worst performance of the season, and (Saturday) this may have been our best.
“The 22 assists is a really good number for us.’’
With conference player of the year Bryce Butler going to the bench with two fouls barely 2 ½ minutes into the game, the Hilltoppers didn’t panic. That’s because they still had plenty of weapons, not the least of which is 2020 tournament most valuable player Will Yoakum. He’s battled a pair of devastating knee injuries that cost him the better part of the last two seasons, but was in top form, scoring 15 of his season-high 25 points in the first half as WLU built a 62-42 halftime advantage.
“I feel like I’m still getting my legs back,’’ Yoakum said. “I obviously didn’t know if I was going to be able to play this year, but I’m glad to be back.
“It just comes down to my teammates and coaches still have confidence in me. That’s all you can ask for as a player.
“Even when I was out, they still kept telling me that they were going to need me.”
The second half was a different story, at least for a while. That’s because Isaiah Sanders got hot the way that few can. He hit 6 of 7 from 3-point range and scored 28 of his career-high 42 points during the second 20 minutes, where the Falcons whittled the lead down to 10 at 80-70.
“I’ve got to give credit to West Liberty … they played great,’’ Fairmont State coach Tim Koenig said. “The thing that hits you right in the face is you turn it over (19 turnovers) and you miss some shots you normally make and the ball starts to roll.
“But I’m really proud of the guys in the second half because we played the right way. I always say that we’ll live with the results if we’re doing the right things.’’
Yoakum, however, responded with one of his five 3-pointers and the Hilltoppers were off and running again. Keying a 13-4 burst was Viktor Kovacevic, though the boxscore won’t reflect as much.
Kovacevic fed Butler for a basket, then came up with a steal and assist to Robinson. He registered yet another steal that WLU couldn’t convert into points, but finished the spurt on the backend of an alley-oop dunk.
“If you could paint a perfect big guy for West Liberty, he’s it,” Howlett said of Kovacevic. “He’s ultra-skilled and he’s an unselfish player.
“He came in with the mindset of just wanting this team to win. I think he gives us a good defensive inside presence, which is something we’ve lacked over the years.”
Sanders, whose point total is second only to Concord’s Tommy Bolte pouring in 51 in 2018, kept trying to keep the Falcons in it, but the Hilltoppers did not relent. The effort, however, was not lost on his coach.
“I think the world of the guy and I love him and his family,” Koenig said. “He’s the type of guy you just really want to have in your program.”
Christian Montague checked in with 15 points while Marlon Moore Jr. and Malik McKinney added 12 points each for the Hilltoppers, whose 17 MEC Tournament victories are the most since the league’s inception. Zach Rasile rounded out the double-figure scorers with 10 points.
Briggs Parris backed Sanders with 20 points for the Falcons, while Cole VonHandorff netted 10.
Howlett, who improved to 10-3 in MEC Tournament action, will look to tie – ironically – Koenig, for most league postseason championships (two).
Charleston 69, Alderson Broaddus 57 | Final Stats
By Duane Cochran for MountainEast.org
WHEELING, W.Va. – Basketball has always been a game of runs.
Saturday evening in the semifinals of the annual Mountain East Conference Men's Basketball Tournament here at WesBanco Arena third-seeded University of Charleston and seventh-seeded Alderson-Broaddus took turns all night making big-time runs at each other.
In the end, however, after a 13-0 spurt by the Battlers closed the gap to six at 52-46 with nine minutes to play, it was UC's 17-11 surge, keyed by senior forward Lamont McManus, which ultimately made the difference and gave UC a 69-57 victory.
The win puts Charleston in the league's tournament title game for the fourth time in nine years. The Golden Eagles, who improved to 24-6, will face top-seeded and No. 2 ranked West Liberty (28-2) at 5 p.m. in the title game. The Hilltoppers eliminated fourth-seeded and defending tourney champion Fairmont State Saturday, 117-96.
“We're thankful to move on, survive and advance,” UC coach Dwaine Osborne said. “That kinda feels like what we did today a little bit.
“I thought A-B really made a great run in the tournament. I don't think we necessarily played great tonight and I think they had a lot to do with that. That's a complement to them, but again we're thankful for the opportunity to move on and play for a championship tomorrow.”
In the first seven minutes of the second half UC turned a 10-point halftime lead into a 19-point advantage at 52-33. However, the Battlers lived up to their nickname as they fought back led by Tahleik Walker and Vincent Smalls and put together a 13-0 run to close the margin to six with nine minutes to play. Walker, who finished with 12 points to lead A-B and Smalls, who added 11 points, combined for 10 of the Battlers' 13 points on that spurt.
“We were down and I'll say this about my guys, they never gave up,” A-B coach Stephen Dye said. “They fought. They played hard. They battled, but it just didn't go our way tonight. I think we showed class and never gave up. I also think our attitudes were great in tough times. For that I'm very proud of these guys. Unfortunately we didn't come out on top, but Charleston is a very good team.”
The Battlers' K.J. Walker, who finished with 11 points and went over 1,000 points for his career, agrees with his coach.
“Like coach said they were icing the screens and that was giving us problems early on, but we found a way to get them out of doing that by setting a middle ball screen,” Walker said. “It started working and then we were getting stops on the defensive end and that got us back in the game there during that run.”
Just as A-B made things really interesting Charleston's Isaiah Gable buried a contested 3-pointer from the wing to halt the Golden Eagles' scoring drought, quell the Battlers' momentum a bit and push his team's lead back to nine with 8:40 to play.
“I don't really remember exactly what was going on at the time, but I felt like everyone was looking to me and encouraging me to take shots that I've taken the whole year,” said Gable, who finished with eight points. “I saw an open shot and took it. I really don't even remember them being on a run. I was just trying to go with the offense we were running. I don't even know who found me, but they found me and I hit it.”
In the game's final 7:50 Charleston turned to its reliable big man McManus and in typical fashion he responded in a major way scoring 12 of the Golden Eagles' final 14 points to help his team seal the win.
“I knew we needed to get some buckets because they had just been on a big run and that's pretty much all it was,” said McManus, who finished with a game-high 23 points and seven rebounds. “My teammates fed me the ball and I did what I had to do. It's just like I said yesterday I'm going to do whatever I can to help us win.
“A chance to play for a championship means everything to me. I came here to do one thing and that's win an MEC championship. To have a chance to do that against West Liberty would be like a dream come true.”
Charleston's Shunta Wilson, who ended up with 12 points and six rebounds, was the only other Golden Eagle to finish in double figures Saturday in the scoring column.
UC won the inaugural MEC Tournament title back in 2014. The Golden Eagles fell in the 2018 and 2020 championship contests.
Alderson-Broaddus finished its season at 14-16.