WHEELING — University of Charleston men’s basketball coach Dwaine Osborne sat at the interview table following his team’s Mountain East Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinal, basking in the glow of a hard-fought 84-77 win over Fairmont State. He was flanked by his two seniors, forward Devon Robinson and guard Drew Rackley.
That the Golden Eagles had a chance to play for a conference championship was great for Osborne. That Robinson and Rackley will lead a tight-knit roster into that title game made it even better.
“I just know how bad they want it and so that’s what motivates me to do what I do,” Osborne said. “I’m really excited for them to have the chance to do that.”
The Golden Eagles got 22 points from Robinson and 15 points from Rackley to punch their ticket to their second Mountain East Conference tournament championship game in three seasons, bouncing Fairmont State in Saturday’s second semifinal.
Sunday’s 5 p.m. game at the WesBanco Center will be the third overall MEC title game appearance for UC, and the Golden Eagles will face their first conference championship foe, West Liberty. The two squared off in the inaugural title game in 2014, where UC defeated the Hilltoppers 63-60.
West Liberty defeated West Virginia State 88-81 on Saturday for their place in the title game.
The two teams split their regular-season series, each winning at home. UC plays the Hilltoppers as well as anyone, and Rackley knows what it takes to stand toe to toe with West Liberty.
“We just don’t get out of character,” he said. “We play how we want to play. We try to dictate the pace. We try to make it 5 on 5 as much as possible and not get caught up in transition. We think when we play 5 on 5, we’re at our best.”
Charleston emerged from Saturday’s semifinal despite watching Fairmont take a six-point lead by starting the second half on a 10-3 run. Yet after Kenzie Melko’s 3-pointer gave the Falcons a 44-38 lead, the Golden Eagles took over.
Over the next 10:18 of game time, Charleston outscored Fairmont State 26-10. An Eddie Colbert 3 from the left wing gave the Golden Eagles a 64-54 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
UC’s team chemistry is the main reason Osborne believes the Golden Eagles can fight through the adversity they find in games. That comes from his program’s five core principles, he said, especially the first one — honor.
“We don’t want to demand it, we want to deliver it,” Osborne said. “Our two seniors are phenomenal leaders and I think they treat their teammates not like it’s a dictatorship, but they treat them with honor and respect in how they lead. And in turn, those guys see how they do that and want to go to war for them. They show honor and respect in their willingness to fight and play for them.”
All five UC starters finished the game in double figures, led by Robinson, who also collected his 16th double-double of the season by pulling down 11 rebounds. Charleston dominated the glass against Fairmont, outrebounding the Falcons 36-20 and grabbing 10 offensive boards as a team. UC turned those into 13 second-chance points.
“They really rebounded the ball,” Fairmont State coach Tim Koenig said. “I know they made shots, but they really got extra opportunities in rebounding the ball. That really hurt us.”
Keith Williams added 14 points for the Golden Eagles, while Lamont McManus and Seth O’Neal each scored 11.
Charleston, the conference’s most accurate shooting team, had another good overall night from the floor. UC went 27 of 49 (55.1 percent) overall and 9 of 19 (47.4 percent) from 3-point range. Fairmont had a solid shooting night overall — 25 of 57 for 47.4 percent — but made just 8 of 22 3-pointers.
Isaiah Sanders led Fairmont State with 22 points, while Dale Bonner scored 19.