WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – West Liberty never trailed here Wednesday in rolling to its sixth straight win, holding off a late Fairmont State surge to claim a 105-99 decision in a key Mountain East Conference clash at a raucous ASRC.
Despite battling major foul problems in the second half, Coach Ben Howlett’s Hilltoppers (12-3, 7-2) built multiple double-digit leads but the talented Falcons (10-4, 5-4) refused to fold.
Fairmont trailed 97-88 after a Preston Boswell 3-pointer with 2:39 remaining but FSU’s Przemyslaw Golek finished off a Cole VanHandorf assist at the rim and Kenzie Melko drained a second-chance 3-pointer to pull the visitors within four points, 97-93, with 1:31 to play.
That was as close as the Falcons had been since the 10-minute mark but they got no closer.
Fairmont got a big stop at the other end but Melko turned the ball over on a charging call with 54 seconds left and the Hilltoppers closed things out at the charity stripe.
West Liberty hit eight straight free throws in the final minute to put the game out of reach, 105-96, before the visitors drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to set the final margin.
“That’s a really good win for our program, especially for our young guys,” Howlett said. “We needed a lot of guys to step up for us because of the foul situation and they did. Fairmont’s an incredibly talented and well coached team that already has several quality wins so this was big for us from a conference and regional standpoint.”
Sophomore transfer Pat Robinson III and Boswell set the scoring pace for the Black and Gold with 23 and 20 points, respectively.
Robinson was a sizzling 10-for-13 from the floor despite missing significant playing time in the second half with four fouls. Boswell went 4-for-5 from the 3-point arc, knocking down several clutch shots at crucial junctures.
“This might have been Preston’s best game of the season,” Howlett said, “and Pat continues to show why he’s one of the best guards in the Mountain East Conference.”
The Hilltoppers’ largest lead of the second half came with just under 8 minutes to play when freshman Bryce Butler finished off a fast break for an 83-71 bulge but junior point guard Luke Dyer fouled out on the ensuing possession.
With reigning MEC Player of the Week Will Yoakum, Boswell and Robinson already saddled with four fouls, the ASRC crowd wasn’t shy about voicing its displeasure with the officiating but Howlett wasn’t among the critics.
“I know our fans didn’t like it but I thought the officials did a really good job tonight,” Howlett said. “We need to get better defensively and be more careful with our hands. Even so, we did a good job working through it and were able to beat a really good Fairmont team.”
Sophomore transfer Malik McKinney had another strong outing with 17 points while Yoakum tossed in 12 of his 15 points in the second half. Butler impressed with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists in 28 minutes of action.
Melko had 30 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists to help keep Fairmont in the game while Notre Dame transfer Isaiah Sanders added 26 points and 7 boards.
Still locked in a tie with Charleston for first place in the MEC, West Liberty returns to the ASRC on Saturday to host Frostburg State in a 4 p.m. contest.