No. 2 WLU Outguns No. 16 Falcons in OT Thriller
FAIRMONT, W.Va. – The No. 2-ranked West Liberty men's basketball team clinched its fifth consecutive Mountain East Conference championship here Saturday in a wild 110-107 overtime shootout on the road at No. 16 Fairmont State.
It was the 10th straight win and 20th in the last 21 games for Coach Ben Howlett's surging Hilltoppers (24-2, 18-2), as they avenged an earlier loss to the Falcons (20-5, 15-5) in a highly-entertaining matchup that kept the Joe Retton Arena crowd on the edge of its seats until the final horn.
West Liberty dominated the final 10 minutes of the first half, turning a 25-24 Fairmont lead at the under-10 media timeout into a 58-45 halftime advantage.
The Hilltoppers seemed to be in total control, shooting 64 percent (25-of-39) from the floor and 50 percent (6-of-12) from the 3-point arc. The only thing keeping the Falcons within shouting distance was the charity stripe where the hosts actually had a 9-point edge, making 11-of-14 to just 2-of-5 for WLU over the first 20 minutes.
West Liberty maintained the double-digit lead for the first five minutes of the second half before the Falcons put together a run. Trailing 70-58 following a Marlon Moore Jr. layup at the 15:29 mark, Parris Briggs cashed in a runout layup off a WLU turnover and the floodgates seemed to open.
West Liberty – which didn't make a 3-point shot in the second half or overtime – struggled through a series of turnovers and missed shots while Fairmont State came roaring back. Cole VanHandorf's fast break layup at the 10:36 mark capped a 16-3 Falcon blitz and gave the hosts their first lead, 74-73, since midway through the opening half.
Neither team led by more than two points during the final five minutes of regulation, setting up a frantic final minute.
VonHandorf scored with 46 seconds remaining to put Fairmont up, 94-93. The Falcons got the ball back when WLU missed the front end of a 1-and-1 but Pat Robinson poked it loose and hit Butler in stride for a runout slam dunk and a 95-94 Hilltopper lead with 22 seconds to play.
West Liberty locked down on the defensive end, keeping the Falcons out of the paint and forcing Parris to heave up a desperation 20-footer with time running out. The shot had no chance and Robinson was fouled as he grabbed the rebound with just 0.5 seconds left, apparently sealing the win.
But it didn't.
Thinking the buzzer had sounded, a Hilltopper player had run onto the floor to celebrate with his teammates and WLU was assessed a technical foul for a player leaving the bench.
Parris made both free throws to put the hosts on top, 96-95, and Robinson went to the line for his charity tosses. The first one spun around and out but the All-Region junior guard calmly swished the second one to send the game into overtime.
Robinson put West Liberty up, 99-96, when he started the extra frame with a conventional 3-point play but Briggs - a graduate transfer from UVA-Wise - knocked down his fifth 3-pointer of the game while being fouled and added a free throw for a 100-99 Fairmont lead.
Malik McKinney went 1-for-2 from the foul line at the other end to tie it for West Liberty, 100-100, and Viktor Kovacevik put the visitors ahead to stay with a thunderous fast-break dunk off a great outlet from Butler.
Butler worked the low block for three straight hoops on WLU's next three possessions as the Black and Gold opened up a 108-102 lead with less than two minutes to play but Isaiah Sanders kept Fairmont's hopes alive with a 3-point bomb, cutting the gap to 108-105 with 1:22 still remaining.
Fairmont got a defensive stop and came back upcourt with a chance to tie but once more found themselves unable to break through the WLU defense. West Liberty forced a shot clock violation with just 32 seconds remaining and the Falcons had run out of time.
Montague and Robinson each went 1-for-2 from the line in the waning seconds and Sanders added a layup for the hosts to complete the scoring.
Butler and Robinson continued to form a potent 1-2 punch at the head of the Hilltoppers' scoring parade. Butler led all scorers with 30 point on 14-of-19 shooting while Robinson checked in with 25 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals.
Moore gave the Black and Gold a huge lift off the bench, scoring 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and adding 3 blocks in just 16 minutes of playing time before fouling out. Montague finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and a West Liberty season-high 8 assists.
Fairmont had four players finish with 21 points or more. Parris led the way with 26 points and Sanders added 22 points and 7 rebounds. Zyon Dobbs, a Fairmont native, made a run at a triple-double with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists while VonHandorf matched Dobbs' 21 points.
The Falcons shot just 44 percent (34-of-76) from the field but were 9-of-18 from the 3-point arc and 30-of-37 from the foul line.
West Liberty returns home on Wednesday to take on Notre Dame (Ohio). Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. inside the ASRC.