#4 Fairmont State def. #5 West Liberty, 86-71
WHEELING – Fourth-seeded Fairmont State came into the annual Women’s Mountain East Conference Basketball Tournament as one of the league’s hottest teams.
Thursday evening in the Falcons’ opening-round game with fifth-seeded West Liberty nothing changed.
The Falcons played a marvelous first half, overcame a major third-quarter lull and eventually rolled to an 86-71 victory over the Hilltoppers.
The win was Fairmont’s ninth in a row and improved the Falcons to 23-8. The nine-game winning streak is the longest for FSU since the 2007-08 season when it reeled off 13 straight wins en route to a 15-1 start. Fairmont also got its first 23-win season since 2012-13.
“Heart,” said Fairmont State coach Stephanie Anderson. “I thought our team played with a ton of heart from start to finish. We were extremely focused. All week our team has had one goal and that was to do our job and I thought our team went out tonight and executed it perfectly.
“Give credit to West Liberty. They played their butts off, but whenever they made runs on us our girls made runs back and that was huge.”
After a pretty even first quarter, Fairmont exploded in the second 10 minutes outscoring the Hilltoppers 24-10 to open a 51-32 lead at the half. The Falcons pushed the margin to a game-high 23 in the first few minutes of the third quarter before West Liberty came storming back.
Led by Grace Faulk and Karly McCutcheon, West Liberty went on a 20-4 run over the next 7:36 to trim Fairmont’s lead to just seven at 59-52 with 1:14 remaining in the third.
“In the locker room we talked about how we had to come out in the third quarter and throw the first punch being down that much,” said Faulk, who finished with 11 points. “That’s just what we do. We stay together and do it as one. We wanted to battle back, especially in the third, to try to make it easier on us in the fourth.”
However, just when it appeared like the game was going to be poised for a great fourth quarter Fairmont regrouped and answered West Liberty’s run. The Falcons scored the final four points of the third to push the lead back to 63-52 heading to the fourth and then reeled off the first 10 points of the final quarter to take a 73-52 advantage with 7:27 remaining.
“In the third quarter we weren’t really playing like we normally play,” said FSU’s Katy Darnell, who posted her team-leading 10th double-double of the season finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, nine of which came on the offensive end. “We took some shots we normally don’t take and once that happened we knew we just needed to come together and focus. They went on a nice run, but we knew we could go on one too and once we got focused and answered their run we played pretty well to close it out.”
The Falcons were led by Alyssa DeAngelo’s 22 points. FSU also got 13 points, five rebounds and four assists from Madeline Huffman and 12 points, eight of which came in the last two quarters, from Leslie Huffman.
West Liberty, which closed out its season with a 17-12 record, was led by McCutcheon and Sonia Sarda, who both finished with 17 points. Corrine Thomas chipped in 10 points for the Hilltoppers.
“The story wasn’t supposed to end here and I hate that for them,” said West Liberty coach Kyle Cooper. “You have to give hats off to Fairmont. They’re playing for the opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid if they don’t win this tournament and they sure fought tonight like they were.
“We knew this was going to be a game where we were going to go back and forth at each other with two very different styles of play, two high-octane offenses and a ton of talent on that floor both ways.
“They play a defense which is very difficult, They play hard, rotate hard and you’ve got to get them doing that a few times to get looks you want. We did that at times, but we just couldn’t get some crucial shots to fall at crucial times.”
Fairmont turned West Liberty over 25 times in the game and outscored the Hilltoppers 25-15 in points off of turnovers. FSU also held commanding advantages in points in the paint (48-34) and second-chance points (21-5).
Fairmont State will square off with top-seeded Glenville State (27-2) at noon Saturday in the tournament semifinals. This will be the Falcons first appearance in the semifinals since 2018 when they lost to the Pioneers, 83-69.