The University of Charleston's men's basketball team has had quite a bit to celebrate this season.P.J. Reyes, a senior guard, was named the West Virginia Conference's player of the year; UC has been ranked in the Division II polls this season for the first time since 2000; the Golden Eagles won their last 11 regular-season games.All of that was nearly derailed Tuesday night as No. 2-seeded Charleston defeated the No. 15 seed Bluefield State 100-88 in the opening round of the West Virginia Conference tournament at the Eddie King Gym."Not a very good effort for us tonight," said UC coach Mark Downey. "This was a tough game for us to play, especially coming off of our game with [West Virginia] State. Bluefield State came out and they were fired up to play."
The Big Blues (1-26) kept up with UC for much of the first half, even holding an eight-point lead with 5:25 left in the half before the Golden Eagles closed out the half with an 18-0 run.Charleston attempted to build large leads in the second half, only to see Bluefield State chip away, but never enough to go back in front. With 5:57 left, the Big Blues trailed by only three points."We were able to use our size in the second half," said Downey. "They hurt us in the first half, but we switched to the zone and made them work for their shots."The second-half performance for UC (24-5) was led by Marshall transfer Eladio Espinosa, who scored 17 of his 19 points and grabbed 11 of his 16 rebounds in the final 20 minutes."I was terrible in the first half, I'm going to be honest about it," said Espinosa. "I told myself there's no way they're going to beat us, so I said let me do what I need to do. [UC teammate] Marco [Richardson] picked me up, so hat's off to him."Espinosa shared Downey's frustration about the Golden Eagles' slow start and what they must do to overcome it, especially with UC moving on to the quarterfinals."We expected to win this one just by showing up," said Espinosa. "Obviously, that wasn't the case, especially in tournament time. We've got to keep our focus up and come back with a great day of practice [today]."Charleston will face No. 7 Pitt Johnstown at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center. UPJ defeated Seton Hill 85-75 Tuesday night in Johnstown, Pa.UC has defeated the Mountain Cats twice already this season, including a 102-86 win at the Eddie King Gym on Nov. 19.Reach Dave Miller at 304-348-1749 or firstname.lastname@example.org