West Liberty Men Come Up Short In MEC Title Game
Fairmont State earns the crown
WHEELING — Within a 24-hour time period, the West Liberty men’s basketball team had to try and survive a comeback attempt and surmount a comeback of its own.
Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, they fell just short of the latter.
Down by as many as 17 points to Fairmont State in the Mountain East Conference championship game, West Liberty got it to within one possession multiple times in the waning seconds. Down three, a desperation 3-pointer at the horn was just short and the Falcons survived to claim the 2021 MEC tournament title, 102-99 Sunday at WesBanco Arena.
It was the first conference tournament championship for Fairmont State since 1984. The Falcons also claimed an automatic big for the NCAA Division II tournament.
“It’s a tough loss for us. Obviously we were extremely excited to play in this championship game again,” West Liberty coach Ben Howlett said ,who saw his Hilltoppers’ 11-game win streak get snapped. “I didn’t think we played a good first half and felt fortunate to only be down 12 at halftime. We came out in the second and I thought we had good energy. I thought we just had a hard time stopping (Dale) Bonner. I think he was really good there and I think he went on a couple of runs by himself. I’m really proud of our guys. They kept fighting and didn’t give up. We gave ourselves a chance at the end to tie it, but we just fell short.”
Down 11 with 1:34 after a Seth Younkin free throw, West Liberty made one final charge and scored nine of the next 13 points to get within four, 94-90.
Pat Robinson drilled a 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining to make it a one-possession game, 96-93.
Bonner went 1 of 2 from the foul line on the ensuing possession, to put the Falcons back up by three.
With 9 seconds remaining, Luke Dyer drilled a 3-pointer to get the Hilltoppers within one, 97-96.
Dyer scored a career-high 24 points and drilled five 3-pointers.
“He gave us a lift in an area that he typically doesn’t give us a lift. He’s a capable shooter and when he’s open, he’s got the green light for us. He’s a jack of all trades and does a little bit of everything for us and we’re very fortunate to have him.”
That was as close as they would get as the Falcons went 5 of 6 from the charity stripe down the stretch.
Bonner led the way for the Falcons with 34 points while tournament MVP Isaiah Sanders netted 25 points going 4 of 5 from behind the arc.
Cole VonHandorf supplied 17 and Seth Younkin chipped in 10.
“I think it was a crazy game,” Fairmont State coach Tim Koenig said. “Those guys (West Liberty), they fight until the last second, nothing’s ever over. They really beat us good this year in the regular season. They really beat us up good. I’m proud of the guys staying with it and staying level-headed throughout the runs. It’s a huge win.”
Robinson led West Liberty with 27 points while Bryce Butler tallied 16 and Dalton Bolon and Owen Hazelbaker netted 12.
Robinson also earned the Heart & Hustle Award along with being named on the All-Tournament Team with Bolon, Bonner, Lamont McManus (Charleston), Jeremiah Moore (West Virginia State), John Williams (Glenville State) and Hegel Augustin (Glenville State).
“It’s a funky year. You look back on the two time we played Fairmont, first off at their place, it was a weird game,” Howlett said. “We were lucky enough to come out with a 12-point win. At our place, when they didn’t have Seth Younkin, we shot 60% from the floor and We beat a Fairmont team by 30 points which never happens when we play each other. It’s a weird year. All the credit goes to Fairmont.”
The Falcons set a new championship game record for points in a game and free throws made (27). The Hilltoppers also broke the record for most points in a half (64) and tied the record for most field goals made (36).
Fairmont State also became the seventh different team to win the MEC championship in the league’s eight years of existence.
“This league is so good and you have to be ready to play every night,” Koenig said. “It makes me think of the year when there was three teams in the league were Top 4 in the country and none of those teams won the conference tournament. If our league is not the best, I’d like to see which league is better than ours.”