West Virginia State's Kendrick Ward fouls the University of Charleston's Robbie Dreher on a layup in the opening half Saturday.
As the game's final minutes unfolded, the University of Charleston already had wrapped up the victory but was again demonstrating its season-long flare for topsy-turvy.
Reflecting their on-again, off-again season, the Golden Eagles built a 29-point lead in the first 20 minutes but muddled through a so-so second half to defeat West Virginia State 92-75 in the regular-season finale Saturday afternoon in Institute. A crowd of about 800 attended.
The victory gives UC (18-8, 14-8) a fifth-place finish in the West Virginia Conference and an opening-round home game in the WVC tournament against No. 12 State (10-18, 7-15) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Eddie King Gym. The tourney resumes at the Charleston Civic Center Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
UC's first half, offensively speaking, was about as close to perfection as the sport allows. The Eagles shot 55.9 percent, committed just two turnovers and, in a span of less than seven minutes, outscored the Yellow Jackets 27-5 to produce a 46-17 advantage with 4:25 left in the half. During that span, UC guard Evan Faulkner hit 5 of 5 shots to produce 14 points.
The Golden Eagles increased the lead to 32 in the second half but allowed the Jackets to trim the advantage to 90-75 in the closing minutes.
State's late surge disappointed UC coach Mark Downey. He knew in advance his team might play the Jackets in Tuesday's tournament opener and wanted to keep a lid on them and not permit them any hint of momentum.
"I didn't want to give them something positive to go out on,'' said Downey. "I just didn't want to give them any confidence because I knew we might have to turn around and play them.''
Downey, in fact, was both pleased and a bit angry afterward.
"I thought a few guys in the second half took it for granted and didn't play hard,'' he said. "That's what made me mad. For the most part, I thought we played really well and just had a stint there for five or six minutes where we didn't.''
The big lead, he admitted, may have led to some complacency.
"It's hard to play in those games,'' he said. "In the second half, you know that [your opponent is] going to play with reckless abandon. They're down. It's hard for a team that's ahead to play in that situation.''
The contrasting halves were much like the UC season - the Golden Eagles defeated West Liberty, the No. 1 team in Division II at the time, but promptly lost five of their next eight.
Downey admits he never knows what to expect from his team. And he certainly didn't know what to expect Saturday in light of Thursday's double-overtime loss at Wheeling Jesuit.
"Never. Not with this group,'' he said. "I didn't really know what to expect, especially after Thursday, losing in double-overtime in a huge game for us. So I was worried about these guys thinking they didn't have much to play for. I was worried about what they might do, but they responded.''
Said Faulkner, a junior from Sandyhook, Ky., "Hopefully this game gets us going into the conference tournament.''
State enters the tournament on a three-game losing streak and five losses in six games but offered a glimmer of hope in the second half, outscoring UC 48-42 and shooting 54.3 percent.
"I told our guys that everybody's zero and zero,'' said State coach Bryan Poore. "We have the same right as anyone else to win this thing. But we've got to play every possession like it's our last, but we haven't found a way to do that yet, but hopefully now we will.''
UC junior Robbie Dreher led the scoring with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including an unexpected 2 of 3 from 3-point range. He entered the game having shot just 7 for 27 from that distance.
"When Dreher hits 'em,'' said Poore, "and we weren't counting on that, now we've really got to stretch the defense out. We were kind of on our heels in the first half.''
Faulkner and Terrell Lipkins totaled 16 points each and Quincy Washington came off the bench to score 10 for UC. State's Anton Hutchins, who did not start, led the Jackets with 12 points, Jalen Walker added 11 and David Ford and Raymon Austin had 10 each.
Reach Mike Whiteford at firstname.lastname@example.org.