WHEELING — West Liberty and West Virginia State tipped off a men’s basketball game Saturday evening and a drag race broke out. By the end, it was a question of which high-performance engine would run out of gas first.
In Saturday’s Mountain East Conference tournament semifinal, the first sputtering came from the Yellow Jackets.
Despite 26 points from Glen Abram and another 22 from Anthony Pittman, State couldn’t withstand Will Yoakum’s 31 points and a span of more than five minutes the second half without a field goal in an 88-81 loss at WesBanco Arena.
The Hilltoppers advance to Sunday’s MEC men’s title game at 5 p.m. against the University of Charleston, which defeated Fairmont State in Saturday night’s late semifinal.
After Pittman hit a layup with 8:52 left in the game, it wasn’t until the 3:46 mark that State scored from the floor again on a Jeremiah Moore layup. By that time, what had been a 70-68 WLU lead at Pittman’s basket was an 80-74 Hilltoppers lead after Moore’s basket.
WVSU coach Bryan Poore said his players might have lost their legs a little bit near the end, adding that he probably would have substituted differently if given another chance. State used six players Saturday, and Moore, Abram and Michal Seals each played 40 minutes.
“I probably should have subbed,” Poore said, “but I have so much confidence in those five guys. With the media timeouts and all that and we’re holding on offense. I’m a coach, and I’ll second-guess myself all night ... but it is what it is.”
West Liberty coach Ben Howland credited his team’s pressure defense, especially in the second half, for helping grind West Virginia State down.
“Even though we didn’t generate a whole bunch of turnovers off it, I think our press started to wear on them,” he said. “Eventually we knew they were going to cool down.”
West Liberty led by as many as eight in the second half, but West Virginia State rallied, cutting that lead to three when a pair of Seals free throws made it 84-81 with 33 seconds left. But Pat Robinson responded with a basket on the other end, then got fouled off a Frank Agyemang miss and cashed in both free throws with 13.7 seconds left.
Pittman added 10 rebounds to his 22 points. Dalton Bolon added 21 points for West Liberty, making 5 of 8 3-pointers.
The two teams dashed to halftime at a 44-44 stalemate, finishing a first half filled with dazzling shots and a barrage of 3-pointers from both the Yellow Jackets and Hilltoppers. Abram carried the load for WVSU, finishing the first half with 19 points. He hit 5 of 9 from 3-point range, including a couple from well behind the 3-point line.
Meanwhile, West Liberty’s points came from the duo of Bolon and Yoakum. Yoakum ended the half with 13 points and Bolon, the MEC Player of the Year, adding 12. Bolon was 4 of 5 from beyond the arc in the first half.
West Liberty gave itself a little breathing room, leading by as many as six several times in the half, the last coming off a pair of Pat Robinson free throws. Yet State came roaring right back.
Abram and Michal Seals started getting hot from long distance and that six-point WLU lead flipped to a nine-point WVSU lead when a Seals 3 swished through for a 44-35 State advantage. West Liberty ended the half on a 9-0 run to tie the game.
Of Abram’s 26 points, 18 of them came from beyond the arc.
“I think that gave all of us a little boost,” Abram said. “My guys know what I bring to the table. I know what they bring to the table. When I hit a couple 3s, those guys get it going.”
The junior finished 6 of 15 from 3-point range. Both teams made the 3-pointer a big part of their games Saturday. West Virginia State made 10 of 23, while West Liberty made 12 of 28.
Moore and Seals each added 12 points, with Moore chipping in with 11 rebounds.