No. 2 West Liberty Moves on at MEC Tournament
WHEELING, W.Va. – Top-seeded and No. 2-ranked West Liberty shot better than 64 percent from the floor in the second half and led by as many as 14 points in posting an 89-81 victory over Wheeling in Friday night's MEC Tournament quarterfinals.
Coach Ben Howlett's Hilltoppers (27-2) take a 13-game winning streak into Saturday's 6 p.m. semifinal against fourth-seeded and No. 23-ranked Fairmont State (22-6). The Falcons held off No. 5-seed Notre Dame (Ohio), 67-65, in Friday's last quarterfinal matchup.
West Liberty never trailed in defeating its Ohio County rival for the third time in as many tries this season but after winning the first two matchups by a combined 39 points, the tournament quarterfinal proved to be more of a struggle.
Ranked among the top six nationally in both field-goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage, West Liberty couldn't find the range for most of the night. The Hilltoppers shot a dismal 38 percent (18-of-39) from the floor in the first 20 minutes and led just 40-34 at the break.
"That might have been the worst game we've played all season," Howlett said, "especially in the first half. Our offense was really bad but give Wheeling a lot of credit. They did a great job of closing down the gaps and there were just too many times when we were attacking gaps that just weren't there."
Things didn't get much better for the Black and Gold when play resumed as the hard-working Cardinals slowly began to close the gap. A running leaner in the lane by Jarrett Haines produced the first – and only – tie of the game, 55-55, as the clock ticked past the 11-minute mark.
Viktor Kovacevic saw a 3-point try go around and out at the other end but junior guard Malik McKinney slipped inside to grab the rebound and slip it back through the hoop, putting WLU ahead to stay, 57-55. After trading baskets for the next few possessions, West Liberty was leading 65-62 when they broke the game open.
Following a Bryce Butler free throw, senior Marlon Moore Jr. muscled his way inside for a basket – the 1,000th point of his career – and junior All-Region guard Pat Robinson III wrapped a pair of strong finishes at the rim around a pair of charity tosses for a 72-62 Hilltopper lead.
Moore grabbed a defensive rebound at the other and Kovacevic spun to the hoop to cap the 9-0 run, forcing a Wheeling timeout with the Hilltoppers having opened up a 74-62 advantage with less than six minutes to play. The lead hit 14 points, 78-64, on a Will Yoakum steal just before the under-5 media timeout and the Black and Gold were on their way.
Robinson scored 15 of his team-high 22 points in the second half and his ability to beat his man to the hoop on multiple occasions was the key to West Liberty's game-winning surge.
"Coach (Howlett) put me in some good spaces," Robinson said, "and whenever I get a 1-on-1, I get pretty excited – especially when I don't see any help defense. I guess that's my specialty."
Butler backed Robinson with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists while Yoakum and McKinney finished with 12 and 10 points, respectively. Moore just missed a double-double with 9 points and 10 rebounds as he became the 55th member of West Liberty's 1,000-Point Club.
The Cleveland native could have graduated and moved on after last year but chose to take advantage of the NCAA's COVID eligibility waiver and return to the hilltop. After winning an Atlantic Region title at home a year ago and losing to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State in the Elite Eight, Moore said it wasn't a difficult decision.
"I never gave any thought to not coming back," Moore said, "especially with some of our guys from last year's team graduating. I wanted to do this again. I wanted to come back and hoist up another trophy and host another regional if we can."
Despite shooting just 3-of-15 from the 3-point arc on the night, WLU wound up shooting just under 50 percent – 33-of-67, .493 – from the floor. The Hilltoppers also helped their cause by going 20-of-24 from the foul line while posting a 45-30 advantage off the glass.
Wheeling's 1-2 punch of Haines (28 points) and Jordan Reid (24 points) kept the Cardinals in contention for most of the night. Jay Gentry added 15 points in a losing cause.