WEST LIBERTY - Entering Wednesday night's home opener with a sparkling 26.2 scoring average in her first four games, West Liberty University's Hillary Southworth's had a big problem putting the ball the basket against defending West Virginia Intercollegiate Conference champion West Virginia Wesleyan.
The 5-foot-10 junior forward from Twinsburg, Ohio, cashed just two of her first 13 shots and the Hilltoppers were teetering on the brink of defeat with less than one minute to play after giving away a 13-point lead midway through the second half at the ASRC.
However, Southworth dropped in two free throws to tie the score at 70-70 and then came up with the play of the game when she stole a lackadaisical Bobcats pass near midcourt and drove in for a layup to put the Hilltoppers back in front to stay.
Freshman guard Liz Flowers put the finishing touches on her finest night as a collegiate player at this early juncture by cashing four clutch foul shots and West Liberty hung for the hard-earned 76-72 victory.
Flowers, former all-stater at Williamstown High School, scored 20 points while collecting four assists and two steals in helping the youthful Hilltoppers move their record back over the .500 mark to 3-2. At least half her six baskets were the result of Flowers putting the ball on the floor and taking it to rim for layups.
''I thought Liz Flowers had a breakout game," West Liberty coach Lynn Ullom said. ''She looked like she belonged at this level getting to the rim and when she got those clutch free throws down the stretch, she knocked them down."
The Hilltoppers also were sparked by 19 points from senior Meghan Wiseman, the 6-0 post player from Tyler Consolidated. Wiseman, who scored 11 of her points in the second half, joined Emily Blevins in pulling down eight rebounds each as the hosts won the battle under the glass by a 46-39 margin.
''For the most part we rebounded the basketball pretty well against an athletic team. Those kids are big and strong and they can jump," Ullom pointed out.
Southworth ended with a season-low nine points but managed to collect five assists, four of which came during the second half.
''Hillary played probably as poorly as she is capable of playing," Ullom said. ''But she did make the big steal at the end and she got two or three assists late.
''We (also) did a pretty good job of taking care the other than that awful span of turnovers. We had some pretty good interior passing that got Meghan (several) layups.''
Wesleyan, whose lineup featured two NCAA Division I transfers in Brittany Maxey (Houston Baptist) and Atavia Blake (North Texas State), fell to 1-2 after losing the mutual WVIAC opener.
The Bobcats had three double-digit scorers, led by Allie Browne's 22 points. Blake, despite having to sit out six minutes midway through the second half because of foul problems, ended with 20 points while the silky-smooth Maxey finished with 11.
Flowers' quick move to the basket for her first field goal 90 seconds into the game put West Liberty in front 2-1 and the hosts held the lead thought the rest of half, leaving the floor at halftime enjoying a 39-28 advantage.
At the 10 minute mark of the second half, Wiseman beat the Bobcats' press and completed a conventional 3-point play to put the Hilltoppers on top 54-41.
But West Liberty committed numerous turnovers and had some defensive lapses during the next five minutes to let the Lady Bobcats back in the game. Browne cashed a couple of triples and Wesleyan pulled to within 58-57 when Maxey went up in the air for the inbounds and in the same motion she lobbed the ball over the front end of the rim for the two points.
Jasmin Kiley countered on the other end with a key 3-pointer at the 5:05 mark to push the lead back to four only to see Wesleyan rally again on Kerry Conroy's triple and Brown's drive after a steal to put the visitors on top at 62-61 for the first time in the second half.
The lead exchanged hands on the next six possessions before Flowers tied it at 68-68 by cashing the front end of the 1-and-1 with 1:58 to play. Wesleyan went back in front one final time at 70-68 on Blake's turnaround shot at the one-minute mark. Southworth was fouled at the other end, cashed both attempts and then came up with the big steal for the go-ahead layin.
Wesleyan's bid to retake the lead failed as Browne's triple attempt bounced high off the rim and over the back of the glass. Flowers made two foul shots with 15 seconds left to give West Liberty a 74-70 lead. Blake's rebound and basket with 3 seconds remaining cut it back to two but Flowers was sent back to the line and sealed it by swishing both foul shots.
''We have to get some chemistry and some consistency together," Ullom said. ''I think we will end up being a pretty good team. I've been at this long time and these early season games we all want our teams to play perfect and be really good at this point.
''But the reality is it just doesn't work out that way. If you are one basket better the you take it and that is the way I am looking at this (win).''