WLSC Men get by WJU

By NICK BEDWAY

For the News-Register

The West Liberty trio of Chris Banal, Mike Mathey and Ben Howlett combined for 62 points Saturday afternoon in leading the Hilltoppers to what may prove to be a bittersweet 78-67 victory against host Wheeling Jesuit University at the Alma Grace McDonough Center on the Cardinals’ campus.

Midway through the second half a hush fell over the big, excited crowd when West Liberty sophomore Scott Mirich took a bad spill near midcourt and went to the floor clutching his knee. The game was delayed for several minutes before the former Martins Ferry High School standout got up and was helped to the bench although still in obvious pain.

If the injury proves serious and Mirich would be lost for postseason play, it would be another difficult blow for the Hilltoppers basketball program to swallow during still has been a highly successful season. Before the campaign began, West Liberty’s three-time all-conference standout standout Shane Maynard was sidelined after undergoing surgery on both knees. Three weeks ago, with West Liberty sitting on top of the West Virginia Conference basketball world while sporting an 18-2 record, senior guard Dan Binggeli broke a bone on his shooting hand.

”It was tough looking down our bench and seeing Maynard, Binggeli and then Mirich sitting there unable to play,” Crutchfield admitted.

”I thought we played very well,” pointed out Crutchfield after watching West Liberty (21-5 overall, 14-5 WVC) open some daylight in the second half. ”It was a good game because it was played hard. I’ve seen some games this year that did not have the same kind of intensity both teams played with.”

The Hilltoppers, who are locked into playing host to Ohio Valley College in a WVIAC Tournament play-in game Tuesday night at the ASRC, trailed just once in the first half after the Cardinals’ Maqsood Harrington came up with four straight points, three on a triple and the other the result of a 1-for-2 trip to the free-throw stripe for a 30-29 WJU advantage. The lead, short-lived as it turned out to be, came after West Liberty had scored the game’s first 11 points. Wheeling did not even get on the scoreboard until more than 5 minutes elapsed when Magsood Harrington put in a layup.

West Liberty responded to falling behind by taking a 32-30 halftime lead as Mathey swished a triple from behind the arc at the top of the circle.

In the second half, Wheeling Jesuit gained a 37-32 edge thanks to back-to-back trifectas by Duane Compo and Derek Wise, who later put the Cardinals back in front at 40-37 with another three-point bomb. West Liberty moved to within one point as Corey Pelle netted a pair of free throws and then went ahead to stay at 42-40 on Howlett’s first triple of the game with less than 15 minutes to play.

Banal, the Hilltoppers’ scoring leader with 23 points, got 14 of his total in the second half. Howlett tossed in 15 of his 19 tallies after the intermission. Mathey was a steady contributor throughout the game, knocking down five of nine shots from behind the arc and also netting his only inside attempt on the way to scoring 20 points.

For the disappointed Cardinals the loss had a familiar look to what they’ve faced throughout the year while posting a 13-14 overall record and an 8-12 mark against conference opponents.

In many of its setbacks, WJU would be within striking distance or have a lead late in games but were unable to finish the deal. ”It’s been the same song and dance all year,” sighed Cardinals coach Danny Sancomb. ”We just haven’t had the ability to make the plays at critical times. West Liberty made the plays down the stretch and they deserved to win. Again, (Saturday) it was a struggle for us to score, especially at the foul line,” he added.

After connecting on less than half of their free throws for most of the game, Wheeling Jesuit managed to hit a few late when the issue was decided. The hosts converted just 6 of 15 foul shots in the opening half when they might have been able to open up a lead. Overall, they were 18 of 33.

The Cardinals continued to hang close until well into the second half. Harrington’s three-pointer narrowed the West Liberty lead to 48-47. Banal then flashed into the middle of the WJU zone defense, took a pass from Howlett and drilled a turnaround shot from the foul line to restore the lead to three points.

Rusty Wooten, one of three Cardinal seniors honored before the tipoff, hit a driving basket to pull the hosts within 50-49. They would never get that close again. Banal again split the defense for a one-hander that splashed into the twine and Matheny was on target with his fifth triple for a 55-49 WLSC lead that forced the Cardinals to call time out with 5:46 remaining.