UC's Kali Cuttaia puts up a hook shot over West Liberty's Emily Bucon.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was apparent early that the University of Charleston, as well as the basketball gods, would not allow West Liberty another monster 3-point game.The big 3-point game, in fact, and the confidence that generally follows belonged to the Golden Eagles, who hurried off to a 27-point halftime lead and cruised to a 76-49 victory over the Hilltoppers in the women's semifinals of the Mountain East Conference tournament Saturday afternoon at the Civic Center. A crowd of about 450 attended.No. 3 seed UC (21-7), which may have clinched a Division II playoff bid with Saturday's victory, will play Glenville State for the first MEC tournament championship at 1 p.m. today.A tough, determined mindset from the beginning seemed to make the difference, said UC junior guard Nichole Perry.
"We just knew we were going to come out and play well,'' said Perry. "We just decided the shots were going to go down and that we were going to come out and play hard and do everything to win.''Sitting beside her at the postgame press conference, UC coach Adam Collins detected something unusual in Perry's manner of speaking."By the way,'' he said, "that's excitement in her voice. She doesn't get very excited a lot, but I can hear it. And I want to add that not only did she hit the three 3s but had eight rebounds, which is big-time from the guard position.''Like Perry, Collins sensed quite a bit of pregame resolve."I saw the look in their eyes,'' he said. "We had a hungry team. We felt we owed [West Liberty] something. My assistants and different people asked me how I felt coming in today, and I told them I was very confident.''No. 2 seed West Liberty (20-10), which had beaten UC by four points and one point in two regular-season games, hit 14 of 28 3-pointers in Thursday's quarterfinal victory over Virginia-Wise but tumbled down the opposite path Saturday.The Hilltoppers were 0 for 9 on their first-half 3-point attempts and shot just 21.7 percent (5 for 23) in the first 20 minutes in falling behind 44-17 at the break.The Golden Eagles, meanwhile, ended the first half with a flurry, scoring the final 11 points on two 3-pointers by Kali Cuttaia, a layup by Kayla Dozier and a 3-pointer by LeAnne Ross at the buzzer. Ross then rushed off the floor, high-fiving teammates as she went.In the first half, UC shot 62.1 percent (18 for 29), including 6 for 7 from 3-point distance. The Golden Eagles finished at 51 percent overall (26 for 51) and 77.8 percent (7 for 9) on 3-pointers.Missed shots, said West Liberty sophomore guard Liz Flowers, can be contagious."It kind of got in our heads that we weren't hitting shots,'' said the former Williamstown all-state selection. "And when we kind of start thinking that, we start hesitating when we shoot. We're not sure if we should shoot or not. And when we start doing that, we start missing. So it's a lot of the mental game. We should have just forgotten about all the missed shots and just tried to work through it.''
The Hilltoppers mounted a mild threat in the second half, outscoring the Golden Eagles 16-5 to trim the deficit to 49-33 midway through the second half and missed a couple of 3-point tries that would have made it interesting. They got no closer, however, and finished with 2-of-23 shooting on 3s and 30.2 percent overall."I thought our effort level in the first 10 minutes of the second half was as good as it's been all season,'' said WL coach Lynn Ullom. "We scrapped; we fought. But anyone who's been around sports knows that when you're down that much, it takes so much effort, mentally and physically, to fight back in a game that you hit the wall at some point.''Ullom said that Kierra Simpson's first-half foul problems added to the Hilltoppers' woes."I think Kierra Simpson is the most persecuted player in our league,'' he said. "The entire year, she gets less breaks, less calls than any kid in our league. And when you're the smallest team in the league like we are, we have to have her on the floor. And when I have to take her out with 18 minutes left in the first half, it's not going to bode well for us. That kid is a difference maker. Now that being said, I will give the University of Charleston credit. Their effort level was incredible. They knocked down every shot in the first half, and we dug ourselves too big a hole.''Collins said that UC, ranked No. 10 in this week's Atlantic Region rankings, is in good position to finish in the top eight, which is necessary for a Division II playoff invitation. West Liberty started the day at No. 7."We hope [today's victory] put us in,'' said Collins. "We hope. My thought process is that it possibly could have or should have. But there's still a chance, based on conference tournaments and things like that. You never know how those ranking committees vote. I would assume we have a great chance to get in now.''
UC's Chyress Lockhart, a first-team All-MEC choice, totaled 20 points, Cuttaia came off the bench to score 12 and Kiara Johnson had 10. Perry had nine points on 3-of-5 3-point shooting. Flowers led WL with 20 points, and Simpson had 12 rebounds in 28 minutes.