#1 West Liberty def. #8 Concord, 96-72
WHEELING, W.Va. – Despite his team already owning a pair of lopsided victories this season against eighth-seeded Concord (14-15 overall, 10-13 Mountain East Conference), West Liberty coach Ben Howlett worked himself into a fit of worry heading into Friday night’s MEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup at WesBanco Arena. The way he sees it, anything can happen this time of year.
Turns out the concern was unwarranted.
Conference player of the year Bryce Butler stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, 10 rebounds – his eighth double-double of the season – and four assists as the top-seeded and No. 5-ranked Hilltoppers (26-3, 21-2) advanced to the semifinals for the ninth time in as many seasons, since the league’s inception.
“I was very worried because this is the third time we’ve played them and we handled them pretty handily the last time at our place, and got them pretty good at their place,’’ Howlett said. “We had the week off – they (his players) probably liked that, but I didn’t. I want to play.
“I’m glad to get this win, but we can’t enjoy it for too long because we’ve got to get ready for another opponent.”
Despite shooting 30 percent in the first half, Concord only found itself on the wrong end of a 38-29 halftime deficit. When JJ Harper connected on a 3-pointer to cut it to 42-36 early in the second half, it looked as though those two blowout losses were but distant memories, and that Howlett’s angst was perhaps just.
That’s when West Liberty started doing West Liberty things.
A pair of Christian Montague free throws ignited a lightning-quick 13-2 WLU blackout and the lead suddenly ballooned to what was an insurmountable 17-point cushion.
“It happens so fast,” Concord coach Todd May said. “I only get four timeouts and I can’t use them all on consecutive possessions.
“You have to give them credit. We turned it over 18 times and they turned those into 22 points. There’s a reason they’re No. 5 in the country and going to make a deep run in the next couple weeks, in this tournament and in the regional.’’
Howlett thought at times in the first half the Hilltoppers dribbled too much, but after halftime they started eschewing good shots in favor of great ones.
“It’s funny because I always use that line in practice and I thought maybe I made it up, but apparently I didn’t,” Howlett said with a laugh. “One thing I’m proudest of, is at halftime I looked down and we had six assists.
“We finished 18.”
The lead eclipsed 20 for the first time when Ben Sarson scored inside for two of his 11 points that he paired with eight rebounds. That was part of a big run that featured a pair of 3s by Zach Rasille, who finished with 13 points as part of five double-digit West Liberty scorers.
“Zach Rasille gave us a big lift,” his coach said. “He got clean looks and knocked them down.”
The Mountain Lions scored the opening basket but were never in front again. After Alek West dropped in two of his 11 points – all in the first half – to snap a 7-7 deadlock, the Hilltoppers’ pace, depth and aggressiveness took over.
“Their style, they try to speed you up and they do a good job of it,” Concord guard Ethan Heller said. “That really killed us in the first half.”
Lual Rahama did his best to keep the Mountain Lions within striking distance, finishing with a game-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
Montague added 15 points of support for the Hilltoppers. Heller and Jevon Laidler evenly split 20 points for Concord.