WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – The No. 7/14-ranked West Liberty University men’s basketball team opened the season in style Friday night, running away to a 104-82 victory against defending CIAA Tournament champion Winston-Salem State (N.C.) in the Atlantic Region Crossover event inside the ASRC.
The win gave Hilltopper head coach Ben Howlett 100 coaching victories in just his 118th game as a collegiate head coach, making him one of the fastest coaches to the century mark in NCAA Division II history but the former WLU backcourt ace said he was focused on other things.
“I’m pretty excited that we went out and beat a pretty good basketball team tonight,” Howlett said. “Winston-Salem is going to win a lot of games. As far as my 100th win, I’ll probably think more about that after the season is over. I give all the credit to my players and coaches. Those are their wins every bit as much as they are mine. Right now, I’m just thinking about getting ready to play an outstanding East Stroudsburg team tomorrow night.”
Howlett’s 100th win on Friday night started out following a now-familiar formula – jump out to an early lead and keep adding on till the final buzzer makes you stop.
The Hilltoppers’ full-court pressure defense forced the visiting Rams into four turnovers and surrendered only one field goal over the first five minutes as WLU opened up a 14-4 lead before the 15-minute media timeout.
West Liberty continued to pull away, opening up a 23-point advantage – 49-26 – on a Marlon Moore jumper with just under four minutes left in the half before settling for a 52-35 margin at the break.
“I thought we were very good in the first half,” Howlett said. “We played with great energy, defended well in the half-court and really shared the basketball. I think we had 13 assists and only 3 turnovers at halftime. We got a little sloppy in the second half, though. I’d like to see us do a better job of closing out games.”
The Rams kept battling and began to nibble away at the deficit midway through the second half.
A pair of Jon Hicklin free throws closed the gap to 86-75 with just over 5 minutes remaining but that’s where the comeback ran out of gas.
Junior All-Region guard Pat Robinson and Malik McKinney fueled a 15-0 Hilltopper run over the next four minutes. An Elijah Watson post move produced the largest lead of the night, 101-75, with less than 90 seconds remaining and Howlett’s 100th win was in the books.
The silky smooth Robinson checked off nearly every box, knocking down a game-high 22 points while collecting 6 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 assists. McKinney and Bryce Butler added 14 points each with Butler corralling a game-high 8 rebounds and McKinney picking up 4 steals. Moore finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists and Ben Sarson added 10 points to round out the double-figure scorers.
Hicklin paced WSSU with 19 points and 7 rebounds. Cameron Cambell and Javonte Cook also hit double-figures with 15 and 10 points, respectively.
The Hilltoppers close out the tournament on Saturday with a 6 p.m. tipoff against East Stroudsburg.