CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the moment at least, Malik Stith's memories of his three seasons at St. John's of the Big East Conference have given way to more current concerns.Instead of playing at Madison Square Garden amid college basketball's most glorious trappings, Stith is a point guard at Fairmont State University of the West Virginia Conference - light years removed from his former hoops home.Nevertheless, the competition still matters. "This was the most anticipated game we've played,'' he said Saturday night. "This game was highly anticipated.''In a clash of two of the WVC's best teams, Stith and his Fairmont teammates delivered a figurative punch in the mouth early, building a 14-point lead midway through the first half, and defeated the University of Charleston 71-61 Saturday night at Eddie King Gym. A quiet crowd of about 400 attended.Stith, who started for the Red Storm in his junior year, hit 7 of 11 from the floor for 14 points and handed out six assists, along with eight turnovers, as the Falcons (5-2) thoroughly outshot and outrebounded a UC team that, on paper, looks better than last year's Golden Eagles, who finished 18-4 for second place in the conference."This was a conference game,'' said the Hempstead, N.Y., native. "They were picked second, we were picked third. We came in here 4-2 and didn't want to leave 4-3.''
Shooting 62.5 percent in the game's first 20 minutes, Fairmont constructed a 44-27 halftime advantage and increased it to as much as 57-36 with 11:52 in the game. UC (5-2) rallied and, helped by a 12-point run late in the game, trimmed the deficit to 63-56 on Hayden Annett's 3-pointer with 4:22 left.But Stith hit back-to-back baskets for a 67-56 edge, and Fairmont never threatened again.Leading Fairmont was 6-3 senior guard Isaac Thornton, a Martinsburg grad, who scored 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting and collected 11 rebounds. Isaiah Hill, a 6-9 forward, added 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting and eight rebounds.
"We got punched in the mouth early,'' said UC coach Mark Downey, "and didn't respond to it. And I worried about that with this team. We've been pretty good when we get out in front of people, and we've been OK in nip-and-tuck games, but when we get behind, we haven't been very good.''Stith said he wanted to leave St. John's after his junior year and transfer to a lower-level school that would allow him to play immediately."I came here for a visit and just loved it,'' he said. "I was going to transfer, but I didn't want to sit out a year.'' Beating UC was quite a boost for first-year Fairmont coach Jerrod Calhoun, a Cleveland native and former Bob Huggins assistant at West Virginia."We're still trying to figure out who we are,'' said Calhoun, "and tonight was a good step in the right direction. We came with a little more energy. [UC] didn't have one of their better games. I've watched seven tapes on them. With my seven freshmen and transfers, my whole philosophy has been that we have to start guarding people better, and tonight I thought we did a good job of that.''
Among other things, Calhoun instructed his players to deny UC the 3-point line - and they did so, limiting the Golden Eagles to 5 for 27 (18.5 percent) from that distance."They came into the game shooting 24 3s a game, so we wanted to guard the 3-ball,'' said Calhoun. "We wanted to take away their 3s, we wanted to limit them in transition.''"We got behind, and they were zoning us and we panicked and started jacking shots,'' said Downey. "It's my fault, but I don't think we have everyone buying in quite yet. I can still see that in their eyes. We're talented, but that doesn't mean a whole lot.''UC, which shot 33.8 percent for the game, was led by Aleksander Kesic's 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting and Terrell Lipkins' 18 points on an 8-of-23 night, including 1 of 9 from 3-point distance. Reach Mike Whiteford at firstname.lastname@example.org.