No. 1-ranked West Liberty shook off a sluggish opening half with one of its patented second-half blitzes Tuesday night in racing away to a 94-56 victory against West Virginia Wesleyan at a jam-packed ASRC.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (4-0, 1-0) shot nearly 66 percent from the floor in the second half and the Bobcats (1-1, 0-1) simply ran out of gas.
"We forced 14 turnovers in the first half but didn't do much with them, primarily because we gave 11 of them back on turnovers of our own," Crutchfield said. "That's not very characteristic of us and we discussed it at halftime.
"Not only did we do a much better job taking care of the ball with just four turnovers in the second half, we also started scoring off their turnovers and that enabled us to open things up."
Despite the early struggles, West Liberty still took a 36-23 lead into halftime and never saw the margin drop into single digits over the final 20 minutes.
The Hilltoppers' full-court press seemed to have more and more of an effect on the Wesleyan team as the game went on, enabling the hosts to slowly but surely put the visitors away.
The lead hit 20 points for the first time, 59-39, on an Alex Falk steal and run out lay up with 12:22 remaining but West Liberty was far from finished.
The margin continued to grow until a 16-0 Hilltopper run produced the largest bulge of the night, 87-48, with 5 minutes remaining.
Crutchfield had cleared his bench long before that final surge but the WLU reserves seemed just as potent as the regulars.
"There were a couple of times in the second half when I thought the players coming in off the bench really gave us a lift," said Crutchfield, who returned the top eight scorers from last year's 32-3 squad. "Wesleyan's a very solid team that's going to win a lot of games in this conference but I think we just wore them down tonight."
Falk led all scorers with a game-high 20 points but junior guard Cedric Harris was the only other starter to score in double figures with 10 points although sophomore forward C.J. Hester had a career-high 18 rebounds.
Freshman Kelvin "Bubby" Goodwin tossed in a career-high 14 points off the bench while fellow freshman Seger Bonifant added 11. Junior Keene Cockburn piled up 13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and a blocked shot in just 9 minutes of playing time.
"This wasn't our best performance, especially the first half, but when you can struggle for stretches like we did tonight and still win by 38 points against a pretty good basketball team, you must be doing something right."
T.J. Thompson and Noah Cottrill had 13 and 12 points, respectively, for Wesleyan, which was held to just 29 percent (19-of-65) shooting on the night.
"The thing that really jumped out at me tonight was the crowd," Crutchfield said. "It's our first home game and the students have gone home for Thanksgiving break and it was standing room only. It was a great atmosphere for college basketball and our guys were really energized. I just hope we can keep that excitement going all season."
The Hilltoppers are idle this weekend but return to action Monday night with a 7 p.m. tipoff against Point Park (Pa.).
X Falk took over third place on the Hilltoppers' career steals list with 201 steals
X Wesleyan was the first West Liberty opponent to shoot under 30 percent from the floor since Lock Haven (Pa.) shot 29 percent (18-of-62) in a 154-48 Hilltopper romp on Nov. 14, 2010
X The Hilltoppers have won 75 of their last 77 games at the ASRC and extended their home WVIAC winning streak to 44 games
X West Liberty improved to 88-3 in its last 91 regular-season games dating back to the 2008-09 campaign