WHEELING – After watching West Liberty win a track meet against West Virginia State to reach the Mountain East Conference men’s basketball title game, the University of Charleston decided to see how the Hilltoppers would fare in a slug fest.
West Liberty showed the Eagles it could play that game, too, and earned its second MEC tournament crown as a result.
Though UC and WLU stood toe-to-toe to start the game, a late first-half run from the Hilltoppers gave them the space to grind out a 73-60 win over Charleston in Sunday’s men’s final at WesBanco Arena. It’s a little bit of delayed revenge for West Liberty on UC. The two teams faced off for the inaugural Mountain East tournament title in 2014, with Charleston winning that game.
“We’ve had three wars with them this year,” UC coach Dwaine Osborne said. “Today was pretty frustrating, but at the end of the day, we didn’t make enough shots and didn’t handle pressure very well.”
West Liberty won the 2017 tournament and is now 2-2 in MEC finals. The postseason will continue for both West Liberty (26-4) and UC (25-5). UC will play Mercyhurst (20-8) at West Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional. West Liberty will host its first-round game of the regional against Virginia State (19-9). Times and dates have not yet been announced as of Sunday.
Charleston said following its semifinal win over Fairmont State that the plan was to keep Sunday a 5-on-5 game and limiting West Liberty’s transition game. The Golden Eagles wanted to slow the pace against a West Liberty team averaging more than 103 points per game. For a while, it worked.
Drew Rackley opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers and Lamont McManus was scoring at will in the post with Devon Robinson cleaning up on rebounds. UC led for much of the first half and held as much as an eight-point advantage.
But the full-court pressure defense that the Hilltoppers had been using the entire first half started to get to the Golden Eagles. It forced them into 13 first-half turnovers and allowed West Liberty to go on a 13-0 run that gave the Hilltoppers the lead to stay.
After an Eddie Colbert layup gave UC a 21-17 edge with 9:30 left in the first half, Charleston didn’t score again until a Devon Robinson layup with 2:46 remaining in the half. By then, UC was down 30-23 and went into halftime down 35-25.
“Most of our issues today came from the press,” Osborne said. “I think that was where a lot of the problem was. We just didn’t handle the pressure very well and didn’t handle the ball cleanly.”
West Liberty led by as many as 16 in the second half and, though UC was able to cut the lead to nine points twice, it wasn’t able to get any closer.
Normally, it’s Dalton Bolon, the MEC Player of the Year, leading the way for West Liberty. Yet he struggled on Sunday, scoring just two points on 1-of-11 shooting, including 0 for 8 from 3-point range. Sophomore Will Yoakum wasn’t his high-scoring self either, finishing with 11 points.
In their stead, Marlon Moore and Pat Robinson stepped up. Robinson, who averages 18 points per game, scored 21. Moore, who averages 9.4 points off the bench, led all scorers with 24 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He made 3 of 4 from 3-point range and added five rebounds and five blocks.
“During shootaround, I really wasn’t feeling my shots,” Moore said. “I just stayed true to myself and continued to play my game and do what I do well, try not to go out of my element.”
The Golden Eagles could feel Bolon’s pain from long distance. UC made just 6 of 29 3-pointers (20.7 percent and shot just 21 of 58 (36.2 percent) from the floor.
Seth O’Neal led UC with 22 points, while Drew Rackley added 14. Robinson scored six points and pulled down 14 rebounds.
Despite the disappointment of Sunday, the Golden Eagles can look forward to another game. Robinson said UC doesn’t want its season to end just yet.
“There’s a lot of basketball left,” Robinson said. “We wanted this one bad, but it’s a blessing to just keep going on. There are a whole lot of other teams who don’t get this chance.”
Yoakum was named tournament MVP and was joined on the All-Tournament team by Pat Robinson, Devon Robinson, Rackley, West Virginia State’s Anthony Pittman and Glen Abram, Concord’s Trey Brisco and Fairmont State’s Dale Bonner.