Fairmont State's Malik Stith (10) goes hard to the basket against Seton Hill's David Windsor (3) and Malachi Leonard.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- His Fairmont State team offered an unacceptable defensive effort in a loss at Seton Hill on Feb. 21.To rectify the situation as quickly as possible, Fairmont State coach Jerrod Calhoun told his players afterward that they would practice at 5 a.m. the next day. It was the earliest permissible time under NCAA rules; otherwise, Calhoun would have practiced as soon as the guys got off the bus.The early practice left the team only a few hours of sleep, but it apparently delivered the proper message. "We had to get everybody on the same page,'' said senior Isaac Thornton, "and we understand that. So we appreciated it.''
Playing much better defense this time, the Falcons opposed Seton Hill again Thursday afternoon in a West Virginia Conference men's quarterfinal game at the Charleston Civic Center and generally confined the Griffins' shooting to the perimeter in picking up a 77-63 victory.A quiet crowd of about 600 contributed little to the tournament atmosphere.The No. 2 Falcons (21-7) will face No. 3 Alderson-Broaddus in a semifinal at 6:30 tonight.Fairmont built a 14-point halftime lead, which might have been even more substantial except that the No. 7 Griffins (16-12) hit 6 of 12 on 3-point attempts in the first 20 minutes. The Falcons raised the advantage to 19 midway through the second half, but SHU fought back and trailed by just 68-56 with less than four minutes left.The difference, though, was defense. The Griffins shot just 34 percent (16 for 47) and scored only six 2-point field goals. They were 10 of 25 from 3-point distance.
"This team, in my opinion, plays the best defense in the league,'' Seton Hill coach Tony Morocco said of the Falcons. "They came after us, and in basketball there's a certain amount of panic that happens. When panic comes in there's frustration, and all of a sudden you start to unravel.''Said SHU guard Oliver McGlade, "Their half-court defense is probably the best in the conference.''The Griffins' poor shooting percentage was largely attributable to the Falcons' ability to force bad shots, said Calhoun."We forced them to take a lot of tough ones because we had good ball pressure,'' he said. "I've said all along that when we guard, we're pretty good. And we did that today.''
"We took away a lot of things they like to do,'' said senior Malik Stith, a St. John's transfer, who led his team with 25 points."Defense is the heart of this program,'' added Thornton, a Martinsburg native who scored 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting and led his team with nine rebounds. "Coach stresses that every day.''
Fairmont, which has won 10 WVC tournament titles but none since 1984, has undergone a resurgence under Calhoun, a Cleveland native and University of Cincinnati graduate who worked the past four years as Bob Huggins' director of basketball operations at West Virginia.In the biggest turnaround in school history, the Falcons have gone from last year's eight-win season to a 21-win team that's a strong contender for an NCAA Division II tournament berth. The team averages nearly 2,000 fans a game and drew 3,600 for a recent game against West Liberty.The first-year coach brought in 13 new players, including seven freshmen, and learned much of the school's basketball tradition in a conversation with former Fairmont coach Joe Retton, who won 12 WVC regular-season and eight tournament titles in 19 seasons."When I took the job in April, the first thing I did was talk to Coach Retton,'' said Calhoun. "Actually, I went over to his house before I took the job. He really educated me on the program, and I did a lot of talking with people in the community. We've all been waiting for this moment. We've come together throughout the course of the year. Every game we've lost, we lost by three points, so we're as good as any team out there.''They certainly impressed Morocco, a former Gale Catlett assistant at West Virginia."They're a good group of kids,'' he said, "and they're strong physically. To their tribute, they were better. Fairmont was solid, rock solid today. That's a good basketball team and I think they should be invited to the NCAA tournament whether they win here or not.''
In addition to Stith's and Thornton's scoring, Fairmont picked up 11 points off the bench from Melvin Rhodes as well as seven points and eight rebounds from Isaiah Hill.McGlade led Seton Hill with 24 points on 6-of-9 3-point shooting.Reach Mike Whiteford at firstname.lastname@example.org.