— Story by Taylor Kennedy
FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The No. 4 West Liberty Hilltoppers sank nine of their last 12 free throws to help escape No. 21 Fairmont State with a 96-84 victory.
West Liberty and Fairmont State came into the game as two of the highest-scoring teams in the Mountain East Conference (MEC). The Hilltoppers averaged 111 points per contest, and the Fighting Falcons scored 99 points per game.
The first half started slow for both squads. At the first media timeout, both teams combined for 14 points and eight turnovers. Both squads shot 5-of-18 in the first five minutes of the game. West Liberty head basketball coach Ben Howlett says the excitement of the game caused the uncharismatic play.
“I think it was very sloppy. I think guys were so amped up to play this game that they sped up in the beginning, which resulted in the sloppy play,” said Howlett.
Coming out of the first media timeout, the Hilltoppers went on a quick 7-2 run, which got them going collectively. Howlett says that he did not necessarily say anything that sparked them, instead he gave credit to his seniors for the way they rallied everyone.
“I do not know if I said anything. The one thing with us is that we’ve got veterans on the team that have had success and won games. That is the good part of this year’s team. I have got some seniors and fifth-year seniors. Those are the guys that kind of brought us together,” says Howlett.
Once West Liberty found its identity and settled down offensively, that is when the Hilltoppers started their climb to a double-digit first-half lead. The Hilltoppers knocked down 15 first-half field goals, including eight threes.
A lot of those field goals came from the offensive glass. West Liberty corralled 10 offensive rebounds and converted those into 24-second chance points. The Hilltoppers would finish the game with 23 offensive rebounds. Fairmont State head coach Tim Koenig was not pleased with his team’s efforts on the defensive glass.
“23 offensive rebounds is unacceptable. It is unacceptable. We are blocking out, and they are flying in on the glass. We have to block out better. Regardless of what happens in the game, we have to block out better. Whatever happens, happens,” says Koenig.
Heading into the break, West Liberty led 45-34, but the Fighting Falcons responded early in the second half. In the first ten minutes of the second half, Fairmont State outscored West Liberty 17-15, which cut the Hilltoppers lead down to single-digits. Koenig says that his main message to his team coming out of halftime was to execute better than the first half.
“Execute what we are trying to do in our press advancement. Half-court offensively, we got some good looks. Sometimes the ball just has to go in. Defensively, pick up our on-ball pressure, whether we are in man or zone pressure the ball,” said Koenig.
Despite Fairmont State trying to claw back into the game, West Liberty’s full-court man-to-man pressure caused havoc in the backcourt. Even though Howlett was not happy with how his team performed overall, he was pleased with how his team did with the on-ball pressure.
“That is the one area I thought we got more than I anticipated. I thought our pressure caused them issues. I know we turned them over quite a few times in the first and second half,” said Howlett.
The Hilltoppers forced 19 Fighting Falcon turnovers. From those forced turnovers, 22 points were converted for West Liberty. Howlett gives a lot of credit to one of this year’s juniors.
“I think a guy that stood out to me was Malik McKinney. I thought he brought great energy off the bench, and he made things happen in our full-court pressure,” said Howlett.
McKinney played 22 minutes and scored 10 points and forced one steal.
Another guy that had an impressive game was Dalton Bolon. Coach Howlett was not surprised at the game Bolon had against Fairmont State.
“That is who he is. I do not have the stat sheet in front of me, but I assume he had a lot of rebounds. That is the most important thing he was doing for us today. He was not getting rebounds, but he was getting tough rebounds. Guys that are bigger and stronger than him in there, but he was able to pull those down and gave us second chance opportunities,” says Howlett.
Coach Howlett also got some big minutes from his sophomore big man Owen Hazelbaker. Hazelbaker, a Johnstown, Ohio native, played 15 minutes and scored 10 points, and shot 2-for-4 (50%) from behind the arc. Howlett says that Hazelbaker had to hit his first shot to get comfortable and confident.
“I think he made his first shot, which gave him confidence. Owen is a guy that made a huge jump from last year to this year. He has not probably played as well as he wanted to the first couple of games, but I was happy to see him make a couple of shots. He gave us a good boost early. We needed him to make those shots and come down with some tough rebounds. I am looking forward to seeing him play the rest of the year, and I think he is going to be a big help for us,” said Howlett.
With tonight’s victory of Fairmont State, it was West Liberty’s 10th consecutive win dating back to the beginning of February last year. Coach Howlett still sees a lot of improvement that needs to happen for his team to continue to get better.
“We need to pass the ball better. Decision-making as well, which is hard. That is hard to teach guys about decision-making. Again, we did things that were uncharacteristic for us. We are a team that passes every day in practice. That is something I harp on as a coach. We need to be better passers. We did not pass the ball, we dribbled. That is not who we are,” said Howlett.
The Hilltoppers will welcome Frostburg State on Saturday. As for Fairmont State, the Fighting Falcons will head up north to take on Wheeling University Saturday afternoon.
MEC men’s basketball scores:
Glenville State 90, Davis & Elkins 85
Concord 73, WV Wesleyan 69
Charleston 94, Alderson Broaddus 82
WV State 93, Notre Dame College 85
MEC women’s basketball scores:
Notre Dame College 75, WV State 63
Wheeling 83, Frostburg State 77
Concord 74, WV Wesleyan 61
Charleston 79, Alderson Broaddus 63
Glenville State 123, Davis & Elkins 82