WHEELING — One day after eliminating West Virginia State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain East Conference men’s basketball tournament, Fairmont State did the same to the University of Charleston in the semifinals.
The Falcons defeated UC 84-69 Saturday evening at the WesBanco Arena, advancing to the championship game on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. against the winner of Saturday’s late semifinal between West Liberty and Glenville State.
“It’s a great win,” Fairmont State coach Tim Koenig said. “UC is a really good team, one of the best in the country. The guys played really well defensively and I’m really proud of the guys.
UC’s 14-game winning streak came to an end. The Golden Eagles (15-3) were ranked No. 2 in the Atlantic Region and will wait to see who they will be playing in the regional next weekend, already determined to be hosted by West Liberty.
“Fairmont did a really good job and outplayed us, outcoached us,” UC coach Dwaine Osborne said. “They did a very good job and deserved the win. Unfortunately we didn’t play well. We had played well for 14 games in a row for the most part and quite a while. We just had a bad day.”
Osborne is thankful that the season doesn’t end for UC, and there is still postseason basketball to be played.
“It is nice and I’m thankful for that for our players,” Osborne said. “We put ourselves in that position. We wanted to get to the championship game again and we just came up a little bit short. We will go home and see what we need to do to get better to get ready for the national tournament.”
In the regular-season matchup against Fairmont State, UC got off to a quick start, connecting on 68% of its shots from the floor in the first half and hitting 10 3-pointers on their way to a 20-point advantage and eventual 85-70 road win.
The roles were reversed in the semifinal, as it was Fairmont State that got off to a good start in the first half. The Falcons led most of the way, leading by nine points before settling for a 35-29 halftime advantage.
Isaiah Sanders led the way early for Fairmont State (14-4), scoring 23 of the Falcons’ 35 first half points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He finished with a game-high 31 points.
Fairmont State realized the importance of getting off to a better start against UC the second go-around.
“It started out on the defensive end,” Sanders said. “When we played them at our place, we let shooters shoot and a lot of people were comfortable. Today we wanted to emphasize defense. We made them do things they don’t normally do, and that is why we were successful.”
Osborne thought the Falcons were the tougher team, leading to more success for Fairmont State.
“We were tougher at Fairmont and I thought today they were tougher,” Osborne said. “When you get in big games and tournament play, usually the tougher team wins. We were out of sync a lot today from the get-go. We just weren’t very effective and efficient.”
Fairmont State standout Cole VonHandorf was held scoreless in the first half, missing all five of his shots and committing three turnovers. The senior scored eight early points in the second half to help ease the Falcons out to a 48-36 lead after the first media timeout.
The double-digit lead remained consistent throughout most of the game. The closest UC would get the rest of the game would be eight points at 62-54 on a Seth O’Neal 3-pointer with nine minutes left.
Dale Bonner, though, would go on to score the next 11 points of the game himself for Fairmont State. He connected on back-to-back 3-pointers and converted a three-point play to extend the Falcons’ lead all the way out to 71-54 with 6:35 remaining.
Bonner finished with 22 points, 14 coming in the second half. VonHandorf tallied 15 points, all coming in the second half.
Keith Williams led UC with 18 points, O’Neal added 17 points, and Lamont McManus was the other double-figure scorer for the Golden Eagles with 13 points.