CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Liberty spent a second consecutive day avenging a defeat from earlier in the season and, as a result, will play for its fifth consecutive conference championship.Junior forward C.J. Hester had 25 points and the Hilltoppers overcame a furious comeback from Fairmont State on Saturday to earn a 97-87 victory over the Falcons in the Mountain East Conference Tournament semifinals at the Charleston Civic Center.The Hilltoppers (26-2), the top-ranked team in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region and the third-ranked team in all of Division II, face the University of Charleston (20-8) in Sunday's championship game at 3:30 p.m.West Liberty won the last four West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles (2009-13) and will try to claim the inaugural MEC crown.
To get there, coach Jim Crutchfield's team had to beat two teams that defeated the Hilltoppers earlier this season.The Hilltoppers dropped an 89-87 decision to Notre Dame College on Jan. 30 before defeating those Falcons in the MEC quarterfinals 107-86 on Friday.West Liberty lost to the Fairmont State Falcons 93-81 on Feb. 15. "It's crazy the way it works," said senior guard Cedric Harris, who added 24 points and eight rebounds for West Liberty. "We wanted both of these teams. We felt like the last Fairmont game got away from us."
West Liberty team had the semifinal game against Fairmont State well in hand with a 50-32 halftime lead, but had a hard time putting the game away."I told them at halftime that we're either going to be remembered as quitters or we're going to go down fighting," Fairmont coach Jerrod Calhoun said. "Stevie (Browning) and Chase (Morgan) really stepped up and we fed off their energy. We will never quit or back down."Foul trouble plagued the Falcons (20-10), and with senior forward Brendan Cooper and freshman swing guard Thomas Wimbush on the bench with four fouls, Fairmont State made its move.Behind the sharp shooting of guards Morgan - a former Wyoming East star - and Browning - a former Logan standout - Fairmont gradually cut into the lead and got it down to three with 7:35 remaining.Morgan was 0-1 from 3-point range in the first half, but hit 5-of-7 in the second half. Browning hit 2-of-3 in the second half. Morgan sandwiched a West Liberty bucket with two 3-pointers with 9:33 left and Browning did the same less than a minute later to cut the lead to 73-70.
"It got a little hairy," Crutchfield said. "You hate to keep wishing shots not to go in, but I kept thinking, 'They can't keep making these.' We were doing what we could. Defense became difficult because they were making all their shots."The lead was 82-77 when Cooper returned to the floor. He hit a short jumper to cut the lead to three, but was whistled for his fifth foul at the other end.
West Liberty scored 15 of the final 23 points to salt the game away.The Hilltoppers, who feed off turnovers, scored 37 points off Fairmont miscues. The Falcons had 19 turnovers to only six for West Liberty.However, Calhoun said an overlooked statistic for the Hilltoppers is their ability to "go get the ball.""I told everybody last year that they have great shooters, but where they kill you is offensive rebounds," Calhoun said. "C.J. Hester was monster, a man among boys. We've studied every statistic you can imagine and the reason we beat them last time is we didn't give them offensive rebounds. What makes them good is their ability to go get the ball."Fairmont State was led by Browning with 24 points and Morgan with 18. Wimbush finished with 14 and Shammgod Wells added 14.The Falcons shot 51.6 percent from the floor, compared to 48.6 for West Liberty, which failed to put the game away earlier because of missed free throws. The Hilltoppers were 13-of-22 from the line in the second half.
The victory puts West Liberty in position to win the first MEC title and host the Atlantic Region Tournament for the fourth consecutive season.The Hilltoppers will have to get past Charleston, which lost twice to West Liberty this season --- 89-76 on Nov. 23 in Charleston and 103-71 on Feb. 1 at West Liberty.Charleston has won seven of its last eight games, including a 91-85 overtime defeat of Wheeling Jesuit in the MEC quarterfinals and a 76-65 win over Glenville State in Saturday's semifinals."When I saw them (Saturday) I thought that was the best I've seen them look," Crutchfield said of Charleston. "(Aleksander) Kesic looks like an NBA player, (Denzel) Douglas looks fast and is making things happen for them. It's a big challenge but it'll be fun."