CHARLESTON - The Drive for Five remains strong, not that West Liberty cares about any others but today's. The Hilltoppers (26-2) scored 37 points off turnovers Saturday night and held off a serious 3-point barrage from Fairmont in an 97-87, Mountain East Conference Tournament men's semifinal victory at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
All that stands between West Liberty, the No. 3-ranked team in the country, and not only a fifth straight conference title, but also the right to play host to the Atlantic Regional Tournament for a fifth consecutive time, is the University of Charleston.
Tipoff for the men's game is 3:15 p.m.
WLU’s Keene Cockburn (33) defends against FSU’s Stevie Browning.
"We just want one (today)," West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said. "I saw (Charleston on Saturday) and that is the best I have seen them look.
"They looked a lot faster and there's a reason they are No. 2 in the conference and near the top of the regional. It is going to be a big challenge."
The Falcons, who were one of just two teams to beat the Hilltoppers in the regular season - the other was Notre Dame, who was likewise vanquished by WLU in this tournament - put up a galliant effort, but the 18-point, halftime deficit they dug proved too much to overcome. Fairmont hit eight second-half 3s, including six from Chase Morgan (18 points) and drew to as close as 77-75, but West Liberty, as battle-tested teams do, found a way to get some distance once again, beginning with a 3-pointer from Bubby Goodwin, one of only two baskets for him in the game.
"Our youth showed and we basically took 20 minutes off," Fairmont coach Jerrod Calhoun said. "We've never had trouble with their press until now and we were just giving the ball away.
"We gave them a heck of a head start."
The Falcons, who handed WLU its most lopsided loss (93-81) since 2010, couldn't duplicate that success due in large part to the play of the Hilltoppers' role players. Sure, Cedric Harris went off for his normal 24 points, but guys like C.J. Hester and Keene Cockburn were the difference.
Hester netted a game-high 25 points to go along with six rebounds and Cockburn had 11 points, six boards, a team-high six assists, four blocks and a pair of steals. The four blocked shots give Cockburn 75 on the season, which ties a school single-season record.
"He is a guy who plays hard every single game and he does what he has to do," Crutchfield said of Hester. "Keene sure was big, as he has been in tournaments for us.
"He's been with us five years so he is experienced and offensively knows what we are doing as well as anyone."
Hester has a fan in Calhoun.
"C.J. was a monster," he said.
At one point on the comeback trail, Fairmont had a string of six straight made baskets that were 3-pointers - four by Morgan and two more from Stevie Browning, who lead his team with 24 points.
"You can't turn the ball over against West Lib because they turn it into points," Morgan said. "That is what they're really good at."
"They got hot from 3 and it looked like we were giving the lead away, but the shots they were making were tough, contested shots," he said. "If I thought strategically there was something to do to stop it I would have, but there wasn't.
"We took care of the ball and that's how you offset shooting like that. If there was a ball on the floor, we got it."
The Falcons are still a predominantly young team that appears to have a bright future. But there's one aspect Calhoun would like to see improve.
"In my time as a coach I have seen a lot of good players," he said. "But what I have learned in my two years of playing West , is that they have go-to players.
"I saw the look in Cedric Harris' eyes (Friday) and I told my assistant coaches that that kid is a winner. He knows what this is about."
Redshirt freshman Devin Hoehn added 11 points for the Hilltoppers, who improved to 23-2 against Fairmont under the watch of Crutchfield. Harris had three assists to give him an even 500 for his career.
Fairmont's Trevor Andrews-Evans put forth a big-time effort with nine points and game highs of 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Shammgod Wells added 14 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Thomas Winbush also scored 14 for the Falcons.