CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston-West Virginia State basketball game at 4 p.m. today in Institute is quite unlike most others in the long rivalry. It's the regular-season finale for both, but neither is positioned to win the West Virginia Conference title. UC needs a minor miracle to earn a Division II postseason at-large berth, and State's at-large hopes vanished long ago. In addition, UC (17-8 overall, 13-8 WVC) already has secured a home-court game for next week's WVC tournament opener, and State (10-17, 7-14) knows it will open on the road. More than anything, the Golden Eagles and Yellow Jackets are simply trying to gain a bit of redemption for disappointing seasons. In losing at Wheeling Jesuit 86-80 in two overtimes Thursday night, UC dropped its sixth game in the past 11 and fell to fifth place in the 15-team WVC. By contrast, when they defeated previously unbeaten West Liberty on Jan. 14, the Golden Eagles were 8-2 in the conference and 12-2 overall and were ranked No. 23 in the Division II coaches' poll. From there, however, UC lost five of its next eight games as part of a second-half slide. "I really worried how we would respond after that West Lib game,'' said UC coach Mark Downey. "We just didn't handle success very well, and we had a couple injuries, and we had that snowball effect in the wrong direction. We haven't been able to step up and make plays when we needed to make them to win close games against teams that are around us or higher than us in the rankings and standings.'' Last year, UC finished second in the conference with an 18-4 mark and picked up an NCAA at-large invitation. This year, Downey knows a WVC tourney title may be his only chance of advancing in the postseason. "I think we probably have to win it now,'' he said. "[Thursday] night was a huge game [against Wheeling Jesuit]. We were right behind Wheeling in the region rankings, so if we could have beaten Wheeling, I really think that game would have helped us move up in the region rankings. It'll be tough to get in without winning it. We wanted to get into the NCAA tournament. That was a goal of ours, but now we're making it difficult to do that.'' State, which lost in overtime 96-95 at Bluefield State on Thursday, suffered through a particularly unpleasant four-game January skid, dropping three of the games by an average of 32 points. "It's been a struggle,'' said State coach Bryan Poore, "to get these guys to play together and to buy in to me, the program, to each other and even to themselves. It's been a tough year, that's for sure. And what caused it, I don't know. But once it started going bad, we never could get out of the hole.'' Barring a stunning postseason run, the Jackets will finish with a losing record, Poore's first since 2001-02 when they were 9-18, 7-11. Since then, State has won two regular-season and three tournament titles. "We could never get the momentum going where everybody could feel good about everybody,'' said Poore. "We've been our own worst enemy, not only in games but in general.'' The winner of next week's tournament at the Charleston Civic Center earns an automatic bid to the Division II Atlantic Region tournament.
BRIEFLY: Four WVC teams are ranked in the latest Atlantic Region's top 10, meaning that all four are in contention for the eight-team Division II regional tournament. West Liberty is first, Fairmont State third, Alderson-Broaddus seventh and Wheeling Jesuit 10th. ... If West Liberty is still No. 1 after next week's conference tournament, the Hilltoppers most likely would host the regional tournament. West Liberty (26-1), which is third in the Division II Top 25 coaches' poll, already has wrapped up its fourth consecutive regular-season WVC title. No other conference school is ranked, but Fairmont received votes.
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