No. 2 Hilltoppers Blast No. 23 Fairmont State, 117-96
West Liberty Advances to MEC Tournament Title Tilt vs. Charleston
WHEELING, W.Va. – The No. 2-ranked West Liberty University men's basketball team powered its way past No. 23 Fairmont State, 117-96, in Saturday night's first Mountain East Conference Tournament semifinal at WesBanco Arena.
It was the 14th straight win and 24th in the last 25 games for Coach Ben Howlett's Hilltoppers (28-2), who advanced to their sixth MEC Tournament final in the past nine seasons. West Liberty and No. 2 seed Charleston (24-6) will play for the MEC Tournament title Sunday at 5 p.m. The Golden Eagles defeated Alderson Broaddus, 69-57, in Saturday’s late semifinal.
The Hilltoppers had struggled to find their shooting touch in Friday's 89-81 quarterfinal win against Wheeling but had no such issues on Saturday against the Falcons (22-7). West Liberty needed less than six minutes to open up a double-digit lead, 21-11, on a Marlon Moore fast break with 14:11 on the first half clock and it was all Hilltoppers the rest of the way.
The margin pushed past 20 points, 37-16, on a Will Yoakum spin move at the 10:36 mark and the defending Atlantic Region champs led by as many as 26 points before settling for a 62-42 advantage at the half.
"I said yesterday's game against Wheeling might have been our worst performance of the season," Howlett said. "The first half we played today might have been our best - and not just offensively. We were totally dialed in on both sides of the ball. We were making shots, turning them over, sharing the ball. That was West Liberty basketball."
Despite the 20-point halftime margin, the issue was far from decided. The teams had split their two regular-season meetings with Fairmont overcoming double-digit second-half deficits both times.
Behind All-MEC wing Isaiah Sanders, the high-powered Falcons wasted little time waking up some echoes when play resumed. Sanders, who had led Fairmont in the first half with 14 points, found another gear over the last 20 minutes.
Sanders was an incredible 5-for-5 from behind the 3-point arc in the first 7 minutes of the second half. When his fifth bonus bomb dropped through with 13:13 still left on the clock, the Falcons had pulled within striking range at 80-70 and the arena was jumping.
The Hilltoppers didn't even blink. Yoakum drained another 3-pointer off a pretty feed from Pat Robinson to stop the bleeding and West Liberty scored 13 of the game's next 17 points to restore order.
A Viktor Kovacevic dunk put an exclamation point on the WLU surge for a 93-74 Hilltopper lead as the clock turned under 10 minutes and the only thing left to be decided was the final margin.
Yoakum, who only recently returned to the floor after missing most of the season due to injury, showed no ill effects whatsoever with 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting - 5-of-7 from the 3-point arc - in nearly 30 minutes of playing time.
"It feels great to be back," said the two-time All-MEC guard. "I honestly didn't know if I could get back this year but the trainers did a great job and the coaches and players believed in me. That kind of support is really great for your confidence."
Robinson had another stellar game with 27 points and 9 rebounds. Moore and Malik McKinney added a dozen points each and Zach Rasile came off the bench with 10 points.
Robinson said Yoakum's return made the Hilltoppers even more dangerous as a team.
"It's always good to have one of the most explosive scorers in the region back in the lineup," Robinson said. "Especially when you're a guy who likes to drive and get to the rim or find the open man. With somebody like Will spotting up in the corner, that really helps our spacing."
Sanders never really cooled off for Fairmont, scoring 28 of his game-high 42 points after halftime. He was 12-of-22 from the floor, 7-for-10 from the 3-point arc and a perfect 11-of-11 at the foul line. Briggs Parris added 20 points and Cole VonHandorf finished with 10 to round out the Falcons' double-figure scorers.
"We had 22 assists against just 10 turnovers tonight," Howlett said. "Those are really good numbers for us, especially because a lot of those assists led to easy baskets.
"We can't fall into the trap of feeling too good about ourselves, though. Most of these guys were here last year when we got to the championship game but didn't win it. We remember what that felt like and we want nothing more than to raise a trophy on that floor tomorrow night."