WHEELING, W.Va. – A furious West Liberty rally fell just short here Sunday night as Fairmont State held on for a 102-99 victory in the Mountain East Conference Tournament championship game at WesBanco Arena.
The No. 19-ranked Hilltoppers (15-4) nearly battled all the way back from a 12-point deficit in the final two minutes but the Falcons (15-4) drained a dozen free throws in the last 50 seconds to claim their first tournament title since 1984 along with the league’s automatic bid to next week’s NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional.
The loss snapped West Liberty’s 11-game winning streak and kept Coach Ben Howlett’s Hilltoppers from becoming the first MEC squad to win back-to-back tournament championships. Fairmont came into Sunday’s game just 24 hours after snapping the 14-game win streak of No. 12-ranked Charleston in an 84-69 semifinal romp.
Tournament MVP Dale Bonner led all scorers with 34 points for the Falcons. Isaiah Sanders and Cole VonHandorf backed him with 25 and 17 points, respectively.
“That was a tough loss for us,” Howlett said. “We didn’t play a very good first half but I thought we came out with much better energy in the second half. Bonner was a big factor for them. Great player. We had a hard time stopping him, especially in the second half. He went on runs all by himself.”
In a game of runs, the Hilltoppers seemed to spend the entire night digging themselves out of a hole after the Falcons hit 8 of their first 10 shots from the floor, going 4-for-4 from the 3-point arc. They raced out to a 29-12 lead before the midway point of the first half and cruised to a 47-35 halftime lead.
West Liberty mounted a run of its own when play resumed and whittled the lead down to 62-60 on a pair of Pat Robinson free throws with 11:01 remaining, forcing an FSU timeout.
The Falcons didn’t even blink, hitting 12 of their next 13 shots from the floor to open up an 89-77 lead with less than 2 minutes remaining and it seemed the Black and Gold had run out of time.
Or had they?
With their backs to the wall, the Hilltopper offense suddenly shifted into overdrive to pour in 22 of its 64 second half points in a 105-second blur.
Pat Robinson scored 11 of his 27 points during that surge – including a huge 3-pointer with 20 seconds to go – and a Luke Dyer bonus bomb pulled WLU within a point, 97-96, with 8.6 seconds left.
Dyer, a play-making point guard with more than twice as many assists as field goals during his career, set new career highs on the night with 24 points and five 3-pointers as he filled an unfamiliar role during the late-game surge.
“Luke gave us a lift today in areas we don’t expect from him but it’s no surprise,” Howlett said. “Luke does so many little things for us but he’s still a very capable shooter who always has the green light.”
VonHandorf and Sanders went 4-for-4 from the line for Fairmont over the final 8 seconds to hold the Hilltoppers at bay. After a Zyon Dobbs free throw made it 102-99 with just over a second left, Dyer got off a desperation 3-point heave from beyond half-court that was online but brushed the bottom of the net as it fell just short.
“No excuses,” Howlett said. “I give Fairmont all the credit. They had a really good game plan and executed it very well but I’m proud of our guys, too. They never stopped trying to fight through it and found a way to give ourselves a chance to tie it at the end. We fell short tonight but hopefully we’re fortunate enough to be selected for the regional. Maybe we’ll get a chance to see them again.”
Bryce Butler backed Robinson and Dyer with 16 points and 17 rebounds while Dalton Bolon was 5-for-5 from the floor in the second half to account for 10 of his 12 points. Owen Hazelbaker added a dozen points off the bench in a losing cause.
Robinson and Bolon were named to the All-Tournament Team with Robinson also being voted the prestigious Commissioner’s Heart and Hustle Award.
West Liberty, which will be hosting the regional tournament next weekend, is expected to draw strong consideration for an at-large bid after being ranked No. 4 by the regional ranking committee last week. The field will be announced late Sunday night in a live web stream on the NCAA website.