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West Liberty, Wheeling Women Set for MEC Tourney Quarterfinal Matchups

Photo by Kyle Lutz The MEC Tournament starts Thursday with Grace Faulk and West Liberty battling Glenville State while Lilly Ritz and Wheeling play Concord.

WHEELING — The Mountain East Conference Tournament returns to WesBanco Arena Thursday when the women’s quarterfinals tip off the annual event.

West Liberty will start the day when it battles three-time defending champ Glenville State with a tip time of 11 a.m. while Wheeling is slated for the nightcap against Concord at 8 p.m.

The Hilltoppers and Cardinals both finished with a record of 8-8 during the shortened 2021 season with the Cardinals taking the No. 2 seed in the MEC North Division while the Hilltoppers grabbed the No. 3 seed.

“The 8-8 record may seem par for most, but in the big scheme of things, the rebuilding of the program took a step forward for us,” Wheeling coach Mike Llanas said. “To secure the second seed in the North Division is a great accomplishment for us.

“We feel like we’ve taken another step up the ladder in our program.”

Wheeling ended the season with a victory over West Liberty to secure the second spot in the North Division via tiebreaker.

Despite the loss, the Hilltoppers won six of their final eight games after sitting at 2-6 at the end of January.

“The reality is coming out of that Charleston game and shifting gears to the second half of the season, our players and staff had a choice to make,” West Liberty coach Kyle Cooper said.

“And that was whether we were going to sit down, we were going to get better and we were going to accept tough coaching and we were going to start making plays. I think it’s all been about shifting our focus from just what the outcome of the game is and we have to be more focused on are we winning and losing possessions.

“In that (stretch) games we won at the end of the season, that’s what we were able to do. Our players have made the choice consciously to buy more in to play-to-play.”

The Hilltoppers and Pioneers faced off on Jan. 23 with Glenville State coming out on top, 101-98. Thursday morning’s matchup is set to be another battle.

Olivia Belknap paces the West Liberty offense as she has averaged 19.6 points per contest while Audrey Tingle has scored 11.5 per outing. Tingle also ranks 10th nationally in assists (108).

Arriana Manzay (10.7 ppg.) and Karly McCutcheon (10.3) have also averaged double figures in scoring per night while Grace Faulk is averaging just under 10 (9.9).

Glenville State is the nation’s highest scoring women’s Division II team netting just over 100 points per game (100.4).

“I think our players are excited about the growth we had this year. I think that our players are excited about turning the corner and collectively having another opportunity to play on a big stage against a big-time opponent and get a big-time win,” Cooper said. “For us, we’ve been through a lot of adversity this year and I’m proud of how far they’ve come. But selfishly, I want this really, really bad for them and they deserve to get a premiere win after the growth we’ve had this year. And certainly, beating a team like Glenville would give us that on top of getting a chance to advance in the tournament.”

While the Hilltoppers will face a premier offense, the Wheeling-Concord game will feature two of the best rebounders in the nation.

Wheeling’s Lilly Ritz is the Division II leader (17.6 rpg) while Concord’s Riley Fitzwater is seventh (12). Both can do their fair share of scoring too as Ritz ranks third in D-II (24 ppg.) and Fitzwater is 11th (21). Fitzwater also leads the nation in blocked shots (66).

The Cardinals have also gotten help from Maura Castelluci who has averaged 10.4 points per game while Buckeye Local product Emily Holzopfel has scored a little under 10 points per outing (9.2).

Wheeling Park alum Shanley Woods has had a solid first regular season for the Cardinals turning in 8.6 per outing while Magnolia product Kelsi Chapman has seen much action in her final season in a Cardinal uniform (14.4 minutes per game, 2.6 ppg).

“I think our fans are definitely excited to be able come watch us play for the first time,” Llanas said. “Neither one of them (Fitzwater and Ritz) have disappointed this year. This is also going to be bout our youth taking the next step in their basketball maturity by performing well on the big stage in front of people.”

In the other matchups, Notre Dame College will take on West Virginia Wesleyan at 2 p.m. while Charleston battles Alderson Broaddus at 5 p.m.

Charleston’s Brooklyn Pannell is second in Division II in scoring (25.5) while NDC’s Jada Marone is 10th (21.2) and fourth in total steals (61).

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