No. 1 undone: UC knocks off West Lib
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With 3.4 seconds left Monday in a raucous Eddie King Gym, Robbie Dreher finally finished the takedown of No. 1 team in NCAA Division II.
Dreher, a 6-foot-4 junior from Greenville, S.C., hit the final two free throws to give the University of Charleston a 101-96 upset of previously unbeaten West Liberty. He did so on the 54th and 55th UC free throws of the contest.
That's in a regulation game without a long end-of-game foulfest. And those free throws weren't really a product of tight officiating.
What it was a product of was Dreher, Terrell Lipkins and Co. driving the ball right through the heart of the Hilltoppers defense, drawing repeated fouls and getting to that line. When Dreher's last free throw rippled through the net, the Eagles had scored 40 points from the line.
All that driving drove a stake through the West Virginia Conference's up-tempo monster. And it showed that coach Mark Downey's team fears nobody.
"I didn't think they were real good, watching film, defending halfcourt," said Dreher, who led all scorers with 20 points. "They say teams that trap [fullcourt] don't like to play halfcourt defense. I just went out there aggressively and we came out with a big win."
It was the first time West Liberty (14-1, 8-1) lost a WVC game since last Feb. 22 at Wheeling Jesuit, a span of 12 games. The Hilltoppers hadn't lost to a team of any persuasion since losing 91-90 to Stonehill in the 2012 NCAA Elite Eight.
Before a near-capacity crowd, the Hilltoppers looked mortal after about the 12:00 mark in the first half, when they were forcing UC into turnovers, scoring at will off inbound passes and taking a 26-16 lead.
Just as quickly, Evan Faulker hit three of his 15 points and Lipkins drove for a sweet-looking bucket, and the game was on. At the 6:26 mark, Hayden Arnett buried a 3-pointer to give UC (12-2, 8-2) a 36-35 lead.
The Hilltoppers took a brief lead at 42-41, but Dreher wiped that out with, you guessed it, two free throws.
From there, the Eagles pulled out to a 51-43 lead and stretched it out to 62-43 in the first four minutes of the second half.
That came amid a 10-2 run when UC forced three turnovers in four West Liberty possessions. At the other end, the Eagles had long since calmed down against the West Lib press.
In the early minutes of the game, the Eagles did well to get the ball more than 5 feet past their own baseline.
"We got a little excited," Downey said. "Our press attack, we only keep one guy up and our other two guys are supposed to get the [halfcourt], and they were getting excited and not getting to half. When you get to half, it gives everybody space.
"We weren't giving ourselves space. We were throwing the ball from me to you [just a few feet], and they're getting a hand on it, coming up with it and scoring a layup. We gave them 10 or 12 points real quick off turnovers . . . we were giving them 'pick-sixes.'
"We settled down, we took care of it, we executed our game plan and came out with a great win."
The Eagles kept pulling the lead back out to double digits, leading 87-77 inside the 5:00 mark. But a Cedric Harris 3-pointer signaled the Hilltoppers weren't fading just yet.
But neither was UC's drive-and-draw game, as Lipkins and Aleksander Kesic hit eight straight foul shots to maintain a seven-point lead, 97-90 with 38.5 seconds left. By then, two of the four West Lib disqualifications had taken place.
The Hilltoppers' finally parry made the gold-clad UC fans more than a little nervous. Alex Falk scored six of his 20 points on a three-shot foul and a 3-pointer, and UC split four free throws to make the lead 99-96 with 12.6 seconds left.
With 8.3 seconds left, Faulkner had two chances to put the game away, and missed both. As West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield called timeout with 7.0 seconds left, the Hilltoppers had plenty of time to tie it.
Except that UC only had six team fouls, and used one quickly. Bubby Goodwin missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Dreher was fouled and made those two free throws to send the Hilltoppers home with a loss.
West Liberty shot just 38.5 percent in the first half, 44.7 percent for the game, and suffered 20 turnovers and 34 personal fouls. C.J. Hester contributed 20 points and 14 rebounds.
"No one wins forever," Crutchfield said. "The bulk of their offense was just taking us off the dribble and either getting to the rim and scoring or getting to the rim and getting fouled. I thought we did a better job, for the most part, in the second half of shutting that down a little bit, but they found other ways to score."
UC shot 49.1 percent from the floor and finished with just 14 turnovers. Dreher finished 11 of 15 from the line and Lipkins, who scored 20 points, was 10 of 12. Kesic, 7 of 8 from the line, added 20 points and nine rebounds.
UC gets a week off before Seton Hill comes to town next Monday, and it's tough to argue that the Eagles didn't earn it.
"It's funny, but when the guys finally buy into what you're doing, you see it work, it just raises the bar," Downey said.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@ wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.