An early-season showdown between the top two teams in the West Virginia Conference standings lived up to its billing here Monday night as unbeaten and No. 1-ranked West Liberty outraced hot-shooting Shepherd, 114-109, at the Butcher Center.
Alex Falk poured in 33 points while C.J. Hester dominated the paint with 27 points and 15 rebounds as Coach Jim Crutchfield's three-time defending WVIAC champion Hilltoppers (13-0, 7-0) survived the frenetic pace to put the second-place Rams (8-3, 5-2) away in the final minutes.
West Liberty led for virtually the entire first half before Shepherd took a brief 61-59 lead in the final minute when the hosts hit four straight free throws following a technical foul assessed against the Hilltopper bench.
The lead proved short-lived, however, as WLU got the ball back after a defensive stop and ran almost all the time off the first half clock before Tim Hausfeld drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put West Liberty ahead to stay, 62-61.
Brantley Osborne almost single-handedly kept the hosts in the game during the first 20 minutes as the junior sharpshooter hit 6-of-8 shots from behind the 3-point arc and scored 28 of his game-high 37 points before intermission.
Despite battling foul trouble throughout the second half, the Hilltoppers kept the Rams at bay until Falk stepped into the spotlight.
With Shepherd trailing just 92-90 as the clock ticked under 7 minutes, the senior All-American scored on a put back and then sailed coast-to-coast for a lay up after coming up with a steal at the defensive end.
That keyed a decisive 15-4 run which Hester capped with a put back hoop of his own as the clock ticked past the 2-minute mark, giving West Liberty what proved to be an insurmountable 107-94 lead.
The Rams never got closer than 7 points down the stretch until Marcus Pilgrim banked home a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer to settle the final margin.
Falk had 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals to go along with his 33 points. Cedric Harris joined Falk and Hester in double figures with a dozen points.
Pilgrim finished with 24 points for Shepherd while Chad Moore had a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds. The Rams shot 51 percent (37-of-72) from the floor and hit a season-high 15-of-28 (54 percent) of their 3-point shots but were victimized by 28 turnovers against the WLU pressure.
The Hilltoppers also had a solid shooting night, draining 55 percent (41-of-75) of their shots from the floor, shooting 42 percent (10-of-24) from behind the 3-point arc and going 22-of-26 (85 percent) from the charity stripe.
West Liberty returns to action on Thursday night when the Hilltoppers travel to Greensburg, Pa. for a 7:30 p.m. game against Seton Hill .
X West Liberty has won 12 straight games against Shepherd
X Falk moved up to No. 15 on the Hilltoppers' career scoring list with 1,516 points. Former teammate John Wolosinczuk is No. 14 at 1,523
X Falk also passed Dan Binggeli for the No. 2 spot on West Liberty's career steals list with 231 swipes
X WLU's run of 9 consecutive 100-point games is tied for the second-longest in school history. The Hilltoppers topped the century mark in 10 straight games two years ago
X West Liberty has won 67 of its last 68 league games