Liz Flowers poured in 34 points and the No. 17-ranked West Liberty University women held Fairmont State to its lowest point total in three years Saturday afternoon in coasting to a 53-40 victory in a Mountain East Conference Tournament semifinal.
Coach Lynn Ullom’s Hilltoppers (27-3), who tied a school record with their 27th win, will play for their second straight MEC Tournament title on Sunday against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Wheeling Jesuit and Notre Dame (Ohio). Sunday’s championship game is set for a 1 p.m. tipoff at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
After struggling through a sluggish first quarter which ended with the Falcons (20-11) clinging to an 11-10 lead, Flowers – who had scored her 2,000th career point in Thursday’s quarterfinals – helped West Liberty take control midway through the second frame.
A Deidra Combs 3-pointer had pulled Fairmont State within a point, 19-18, just after the 5-minute media timeout but Flowers knifed to the hoop for a layup, drained a 3-pointer of her own on a feed from Kailee Howe and fed Kiki Simpson for a wide-open layup as WLU opened up a 26-18 advantage.
The Hilltoppers carried a 30-22 lead into intermission and opened the second half with a 9-0 run capped by another Flowers 3-pointer to take their largest lead of the day, 39-22, with 6:37 on the third quarter clock.
Fairmont got the margin down to single figures, 45-36, on a Katie Nunan 3-pointer with 8:36 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Falcons seemed primed for a late-game run when they followed up with a steal at the other end but West Liberty turned away the challenge.
Simpson swatted away a driving layup attempt by Combs – one of 6 blocks on the day for the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots – and Emily Bucon got the ball out to Howe in transition. The senior guard fed Flowers on the wing for a dagger of a 3-pointer and Fairmont never threatened again.
“What a special performance by Liz today,” Ullom said. “Fairmont really defended us well but it seemed like Liz came up big for us every time we needed a basket. That’s probably why she’s a 2,000-point scorer.”
What made the win even more impressive for West Liberty was the fact that the Hilltoppers were battling their own offensive demons. Their 21-of-63 (33 percent) shooting from the floor was their lowest of the season and even though they entered the game ranked No. 3 nationally in 3-point field goals per game, they made just 6-of-28 (21 percent) from behind the 3-point arc.
Nevertheless, thanks to another strong defensive effort, they were able to maintain a double-digit lead for all but a few seconds of the second half against a 20-win Fairmont squad.
“Our defense has been really good the past month or so,” Ullom said after seeing his team pick up its 10th straight win. “We really spend a lot of time working on it and it doesn’t hurt to have somebody like Kiki Simpson – we call her the ‘Human Eraser’ – back at the rim if we make a mistake.”
Flowers had 8 rebounds to go with her 34 points. Simpson had some tough shooting luck and was held to 6 points but pulled down 16 rebounds and had a couple of steals along with the 6 blocks. Howe, who’s leading the nation in assists for the second straight year, finished with 6 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists.
Nunan led the Falcons with 16 points while Amanda Ruffner and Combs finished with 12 and 10 points, respectively.
X Flowers’ 2,035 career points trails only WLU Hall of Famer Melissa Hammond (2,150) and former Hilltopper All-American Tori Hanson (2,300) on the school’s scoring list
X Kiki Simpson collected her 400th rebound and 100th blocked shot of the season on Saturday
X The 40 points were the fewest for a Fairmont State team since a 66-40 loss at Gannon (Pa.) in the 2013 NCAA Division II Atlantic Region Tournament
X Ullom has compiled a 54-18 record in league tournament games during his 25-year career. His teams are 14-6 in the semifinal round and have a 6-7 record in championship games
X The West Liberty women are 56-3 over the past four seasons – and now 20-1 this year – when holding their opponents below 70 points