West Liberty Repeats as MEC Champions
WHEELING – Less than midway through the second half West Liberty guard Christian Montague was fouled going to the basket, and all four of his teammates sprinted to his aid in unison. At the same time, Fairmont State’s players were gathered around the paint, to a man with hands tugging at their shorts.
The scoreboard at that point said it all, but the body language eliminated any doubt – the coronation was already well underway.
Tournament Most Valuable Player Bryce Butler tallied game-highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds to lead five double-figure scorers as top-seeded West Liberty (28-3) ran away from No. 2 Fairmont State (24-7) in a record-breaking Mountain East Conference championship performance on Sunday at WesBanco Arena. The Hilltoppers, who gave Coach Ben Howlett his third crown while becoming the first team to repeat as champions since the birth of the league, set title-game records for points (112), largest halftime lead (20), largest margin of victory (30), most field goals (42), most made 3-pointers (18), most rebounds (48), and most assists (29). In addition, West Liberty now holds the distinction of the most 3-pointers made during the course of an MEC Tournament (42) and largest average margin by a tournament champion – three games – at 25.0.
“We came in for our shootaround this morning and we stretched up above (on the concourse) first,” Howlett said. “These guys are usually laughing and joking around with each other, but it was silent. These guys were locked in all day.
“This was kind of a perfect storm for us. We shot it well, we passed it well and every loose ball went our way.”
Now the Hilltoppers are going to the Atlantic Regional next weekend, likely to be hosted by Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). And they’ll be arriving as the No. 2 seed, with a 13-game winning streak in tow.
“This team, I think, is getting better right now. We’re still improving in March, which is what you want to see,” Howlett said. “Once we lost to Wheeling in January (it was Jan. 21), I think it was, we had a little team pow-wow.
“I told them we could win the rest of our regular-season games and come in here and win the conference tournament, and we’ve won every game since.”
There wasn’t a lot of suspense in this one, despite the fact Fairmont had handed West Liberty its worst regular-season loss in years in the team’s first matchup, then took the Hilltoppers to the wire before falling at the ASRC.
WLU built a 53-33 halftime lead largely on the play of Chaz Hinds (12) and all-tournament honoree Steve Cannady (14), who combined for 26 points. It didn’t hurt that the Toppers hit eight 3-pointers and grabbed 15 of their 20 offensive rebounds during the game’s initial 20 minutes.
“Congrats to West Liberty. They played really well,” Falcons coach Tim Koenig said. “Obviously it was not our night and it was theirs.
“They’re versatile. Much like we had guys step up during the first two games of this tournament, they had other guys step up.”
The game went back-and-forth early, before West Liberty took the lead for good on two of Malik McKinney’s 16 points to make it a 15-13 game. That ignited a 13-3 blackout that presented the Hilltoppers with their first double-digit lead, and it only got worse from there for the Falcons.
“This means the world to me,” Cannady said. “I’ve been waiting four, well, five years, for this.
“I was getting emotional over on the bench as the time was running off the clock.”
Hinds recorded back-to-back putbacks as part of his 15-point performance and Alek West tallied to make it a 34-20 lead, and Cannady sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around one by Fairmont’s Fonz Hale for a 48-30 upperhand late in the first half.
“We didn’t play defense,” said Fairmont guard Zyon Dobbs, who earned all-tournament along with teammate Isaiah Sanders. “Too many rotations and not closing out on shooters.’’
In the second half, West Liberty poured it on.
The Falcons opened with the first four points after the break, but Butler served notice a comeback wasn’t in the works, draining consecutive 3-pointers from almost the identical spot on the left wing.
The lead grew to as many as 41 with 3:12 left, before both teams emptied their benches.
Now it’s on to the next endeavor.
“This feels great, but we don’t want to take it for granted,” Butler said. “The same thing happened last year and we went and laid an egg in the regional.
“I’ve still got a sour taste in my mouth from that.”
Koenig, who before this game was tied with Howlett for the most conference tournament titles, is also looking ahead to bigger things.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve done so much during the season that we will get to play again,” he said. “We have to learn from this and move on.
“This just happened so I don’t know if I have a message for the team. I usually like to sleep on it first.”
Cannady finished with 19 points while Ben Sarson ended a solid tournament with 13 points.
Tariq Woody and George Mangas paced the Falcons with 12 points each. Briggs Parris and Dobbs netted 11, and Hale finished with 10.
The All-Tournament Team consisted of Butler, Cannady, Dobbs, Sanders, Concord’s Lual Rahama, Davis & Elkins’ Sam Rolle, Glenville State’s Freddie Word and Notre Dame’s Obinna Ugwuakazi. Rahama had the tournament’s high-scoring average, while Rolle earned the Heart and Hustle Award.
Daniel Rahama, Concord
Sam Rolle, Davis & Elkins
Freddie Word, Glenville State
Obinna Ugwuakazi, Notre Dame
Isaiah Sanders, Fairmont State
Zyon Dobbs, Fairmont State
Steve Cannady, West Liberty
MVP: Bryce Butler, West Liberty
Highest Scoring Average: Daniel Rahama, Concord (26.5)
Commissioner's Heart and Hustle Award: Sam Rolle, Davis & Elkins