WHEELING, W.Va. – No. 2-ranked West Liberty held upset-minded Charleston to one field goal over the final 4 1/2 minutes here Sunday to close out a 70-59 victory in the Mountain East Conference Tournament championship game at WesBanco Arena.
It was the 15th straight win and third MEC Tournament title for Coach Ben Howlett's streaking Hilltoppers (29-2), who have won five straight league championships and are the only program with multiple MEC Tournament crowns since the conference debuted in 2013-14.
West Liberty returns to the court on Saturday as the defending champion and No. 2 seed in the 2022 NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional, which is being hosted by No. 3-ranked PSAC Tournament champion Indiana, Pa. (29-2). The Hilltoppers will open regional play against No. 7 seed West Virginia State (23-7).
"We thought we had a very good case to get the No. 1 seed and host the region," Howlett said, "but I'm sure IUP felt the same way. No matter where you play the games, it's one heck of a tough region. We'd love to be at home for our fans but we'll go wherever they tell us to go and we'll be ready to go when we get there."
Sunday’s championship game was a tale of two halves for the Hilltoppers and the first half story wasn’t a pretty one.
West Liberty, which entered the game ranked 6th in the nation in field-goal percentage, made just 9-of-31 shots from the floor (29 percent) and 2-of-12 (16 percent) from behind the 3-point arc. It was the Hilltoppers’ worst shooting half of the season but Howlett said the mood in the halftime locker room was surprisingly upbeat despite trailing 29-28 at intermission.
“Shooting as poorly as we did, I thought it was pretty encouraging that we were still only down by one (point),” Howlett said. “We told the guys that at some point in the second half, those shots will start to fall. When they do, that’s when we have to put the game away – which is basically what we did.”
Charleston got off to a strong start in the second half, opening up its largest lead of the night, 43-35, on a Keith Williams jumper with 13:40 remaining. As has been so often the case for West Liberty over the years, the Hilltopper defense provided a jump start for the struggling offense.
Bryce Butler – the MEC Player of the Year – turned a steal into an uncontested layup just over a minute later and the run Howlett had been waiting for suddenly materialized. Christian Montague converted a slick backdoor pass from Viktor Kovacevic, Butler added a pair of free throws and Kovacevic cashed in a lob from Malik McKinney to forge a 43-43 deadlock as the clocked ticked past 10 minutes.
Kovacevic came up with a steal at the other end when play resumed and the Hilltoppers were out in transition. Montague couldn’t get a fast break layup to fall but Butler tapped the offensive rebound over to Kovacevic and the 6-8 senior finished to cap the 10-0 run and put West Liberty on top, 45-43.
Williams hit a jumper at the other end, tying the game for what proved to be the final time at 45-45. Montague was fouled on a layup at 8:43 and converted the conventional 3-point play for a 48-45 Hilltopper advantage. The Black and Gold never trailed again.
The Golden Eagles kept things close for the next few minutes and cut it down to a one-point game, 54-53, on a Lamont McManus power post with 4:30 to play but that’s when the West Liberty defense slammed the door. The Hilltoppers held UC to just one made basket the rest of the night and scored 13 of the game’s last 17 points to win going away.
Kovacevic finished with a game-high 19 points in just 22 minutes of game action while battling foul trouble. He was 8-of-13 from the floor and was the only WLU player to make a 3-pointer, going 3-for-6 from the 3-point arc.
Butler was a key figure for West Liberty in the second half. He played all 20 minutes in the half to finish with 17 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. Twelve of his 17 points came after intermission. Will Yoakum finished with 10 points to round out the double-figure scorers as WLU shook off its early shooting woes by going 15-of-27 (56 percent) in the second half.
“Good teams find a way to win no matter what and I thought we won three different ways this weekend,” Howlett said. “Friday night against Wheeling, we played one of our worst games of the year but did just enough to get the win. Saturday night we came back and played one of our best games of the year against Fairmont and then tonight we had get down in the trenches and really grind one out against a very good Charleston team. I’m really proud of these guys right now.”
McManus had a game-high 20 points and Williams finished with 19 for Charleston.