WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. - The No. 11/10 ranked West Liberty University men's basketball team won an instant classic, 119-113, in overtime over visiting Fairmont State on Saturday afternoon inside a packed ASRC. After battling back in the second half to send the game to overtime, West Liberty started the extra period by scoring seven straight points and held on for the victory.
The Hilltoppers (23-3, 18-2) clinched the Mountain East Conference regular season championship for the sixth straight season and ninth in the 10 year history of the conference with the win.
Christian Montague scored a career-high 30 points on 11-for-13 shooting and a perfect 4-for-4 mark from beyond the arc. His fourth three-pointer kickstarted the 7-0 run for the Black and Gold at the beginning of OT to take control of the game. The Hilltoppers never trailed in overtime and went 7-for-8 from the free throw line to seal the deal.
It was a back-and-forth battle all game featuring 16 ties and 16 lead changes. 10 of the ties and 11 of the lead changes came in the first half, as no team led by more than six points.
West Liberty started off with a 6-point lead (12-6) two and a half minutes in, as Montague came out firing scoring nine of the first 12 'Topper points.
Fairmont State (20-7, 15-5 MEC) was quick to answer with seven straight points taking its first lead of the game (13-12) at the 16 minute mark and back-and-forth it went. The game stayed within one possession the rest of the first half until a Montague three pointer beat the halftime horn and sent the Hilltoppers into the break ahead by four (59-55).
Bryce Butler slammed home a fastbreak dunk after a steal to put the Black and Gold up by double-digits (68-57) capping off a 9-2 spurt over the opening two and a half minutes of the second half. That would be the largest lead of the game for either side, as Fairmont State once again fought right back.
Out of a timeout, the Fighting Falcons scored 13 of the next 15 points to tie the game at 70 with just over 14 minutes left. After four straight points for the 'Toppers, Fairmont State went on a 7-0 run to take a three-point lead (77-74) with just under 12 minutes remaining. The narrow Falcon lead would hold for nearly the next eight minutes and grew to as many as five points during the stretch.
Malik McKinney nailed a three pointer with the Hilltoppers trailing by five points nearing the five minute mark and a pair of Ben Sarson free throws followed to tie the game at 89-89 with four minutes left. An 8-2 spurt over the next minute by the Falcons followed pushing their lead up to six points (97-91).
This time a Bryce Butler three pointer set the stage for a 7-0 run and McKinney made a driving layup to take back the lead 98-97 approaching one minute remaining. The sides racked up free throws late and Fairmont State held a 103-100 lead after splitting a trip to the free throw line with 12 seconds left. West pushed it ahead for the Hilltoppers and was fouled at mid court sending him to the free throw line.
West made both to bring the deficit to one, then on the ensuing inbound McKinney grabbed hold of the ball and forced a jump ball. With the possession arrow favoring WLU, the Hilltoppers got the ball under their own hoop with a chance to win it. Sarson was fouled off the ball, then split his trip to the line making the first and missing the second sending the game to overtime after a last-second defensive stand by the Hilltoppers.
After the Montague three to open OT, the rest is history as WLU earned the revenge win and clinched the MEC regular season crown.
Butler finished with 27 points, six assists, and four rebounds along with a block. He was fouled out of the game in the final seconds of the second half. Alek West scored 17 points and went 9-for-9 from the free throw line, a career-best mark, leading a 32-for-35 team effort at the line. Cannady added an 8-for-8 performance at the line with six coming in overtime. He finished with 14 points and McKinney added 11, rounding out five Hilltoppers in double digits.
West Liberty outrebounded the Falcons 15-9 on the offensive glass, leading to a 20-10 advantage in second chance points. The Hilltoppers kept the up tempo pace all game scoring a 27-14 edge in fast break points. They also had a 22-12 advantage in points off turnovers despite having just a +2-turnover margin. Montague also had a team-leading three steals in the game.
Cannady and Butler each had a team-high six assists, as WLU assisted on 21 of its 38 made shots.
West Liberty heads to Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio on Wednesday before its home finale next Saturday against crosstown rival Wheeling.