No. 5 West Liberty Powers Past W.Va. State

No. 5 West Liberty Powers Past W.Va. State

WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – No. 5 West Liberty led by as many as 17 points down the stretch here on its way to an impressive 96-84 victory against West Virginia State Wednesday night inside the ASRC.

   It was the 15th win in the last 16 games for Coach Ben Howlett's surging Hilltoppers (19-2, 13-2) while the Yellowjackets (15-6, 10-4) suffered their first loss since mid-December, ending a 10-game winning streak.

   Seventeen of WLU's 19 wins this season have come by 10 or more points.

   "Great game tonight between two high-level teams," Howlett said. "State is really, really good. They came in here having won 10 straight with multiple double-digit wins against nationally-ranked teams. We told our guys they were playing the hottest team in the country and I'm really proud of the way we responded."

   Sophomore wing Bryce Butler had a huge night for the hosts, checking off every box imaginable on the final stat sheet. Not only did the 6-5 jumping jack score a game-high 23 points while grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds, he dished out 7 assists and added 5 steals to the ledger before fouling out with less than two minutes remaining.

   "Bryce was just relentless tonight," Howlett said. "He may be a little undersized in there but he just battles and battles and battles. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. I think he's one of the best players in the country and I'll rock with him for a long time."

   After leading for all but the first five minutes of the opening half, West Liberty carried a 51-42 advantage into the halftime locker room. A strong start to the second half pushed the margin as high as 13 points but the Yellowjackets still had plenty of sting.

   Trailing 57-44 following a pair of Ben Sarson free throws, State took advantage of some WLU miscues to come storming all the way back. Anthony Pittman's steal and runout layup with 14:17 still to play pulled the teams even, 59-59, for the first time since the opening minutes of play.

   It also served to stir some bitter memories for the hosts.

   "We lost a big lead in the second half against Fairmont a couple of weeks ago and wound up letting that one get away," Butler said. "When State came back and tied it tonight, I thought we showed a lot of maturity and handled it very well. This was a great team win."

   Malik McKinney put WLU ahead to stay with a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession and back-to-back hoops from Butler a few minutes later provided a little more breathing room, stretching the margin to 72-65 at the 10-minute mark.

   After Pat Robinson sandwiched a pair of short jumpers around a rebound hoop from Butler to restore the Hilltoppers' double-digit lead, 78-67, with just over 7 minutes remaining, the visitors never threatened again.

   Second-year freshman Zach Rasile had a strong game off the bench with 15 points and three big 3-pointers to go along with a solid effort on the defensive end. Robinson scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime – including a 6-for-6 showing from the foul line – and graduate transfer Viktor Kovacevic added 11 points and 7 rebounds.

   State got 21 points each from Pittman and leading scorer Glen Abram. Jeremiah Moore and Ernest Jenkins added 14 and 10 points, respectively, in a losing cause.

   West Liberty hits the road on Saturday for another huge game against a perennial Kanawha County power when they hook up with the University of Charleston for a 4 p.m. game inside the Wehrle Center.

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