No. 3-ranked West Liberty locked up its fourth straight West Virginia Conference title in style Saturday afternoon, holding off Fairmont State, 103-99, before a regional television audience at a jam-packed Joe Retton Arena.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (24-1, 18-1) never trailed in the late-season showdown between the WVIAC's top two teams, building double-digit leads in each half and blunting a late comeback by the Falcons (18-6, 16-4) with clutch foul shooting down the stretch.
Cedric Harris helped West Liberty come firing out of the blocks as the junior guard had 11 points on the board before the game was 5 minutes old, propelling the visitors to a 16-6 lead with 15:16 still showing on the first half clock.
The lead stayed at or near double-figures for most of the first half as the Hilltoppers blistered the nets at a 64 percent pace to take a 50-40 lead into the locker room at the break.
West Liberty cooled off a bit in the second half while the Falcons' Isaac Thornton and Malik Stith began chipping away at the deficit.
Thornton, who had scored 18 points in the first half to keep the hosts within range, teamed with Stith to fuel an extended Fairmont surge.
The Falcons finally cut the lead to 64-62 on a Thornton 3-pointer with 12:09 remaining but that's where the Hilltoppers drew the line.
Freshman Seger Bonifant – who saw extended minutes with senior Chris Morrow battling foul problems for most of the game – stopped the bleeding with a pair of free throws before Shawn Dyer and Harris drained back-to-back 3-pointers to restore a double-digit lead, 72-62, with 10:37 to go.
West Liberty took its biggest lead, 83-69, when Dyer split the defense for a layup with 6:26 remaining and the Falcons were hanging on the ropes.
Still trailing, 92-85, heading into the final 2 minutes, Fairmont was forced to foul to stop the clock and the Hilltoppers closed out the win by going 11-of-12 from the line in the last 1:35.
Offensive efficiency was the key for West Liberty as the Hilltoppers shot 59 percent (30-of-51) from the floor and made a staggering 61 percent (11-of-18) of their 3-point attempts. The visitors also held their own at the charity stripe, cashing in 80 percent (32-of-40) from the foul line.
West Liberty's depth also played a key role as the Hilltoppers had a 37-8 edge in bench scoring on the day.
Harris finished with 25 points while Alex Falk added 21 before fouling out. Dyer came off the bench for 20 points while Bonifant made the most of his extended minutes with 17 points. Morrow finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds despite being limited to just 19 minutes.
Thornton scored 26 points in the second half to finish with a WVIAC season-high 44 points and Stith added a career-high 28 points as the Falcon tandem combined for 44 of Fairmont's 59 second-half points.
West Liberty returns home Monday to host Shepherd in a 7:30 p.m. game at the ASRC.