WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – The No. 20-ranked West Liberty men’s basketball team exploded for 70 first-half points and shot a blistering 64 percent from the floor here Wednesday night in routing No. 24 Fairmont State, 126-96, inside the ASRC.
It was the eighth straight win for Coach Ben Howlett’s high-flying Hilltoppers (12-3), who clinched a Mountain East Conference North Division title by completing the season sweep of the shell-shocked Falcons (10-4).
West Liberty opened the game on a 10-0 run behind and kept right on rolling behind a sizzling first half performance from senior All-American Dalton Bolon.
The 6-4 guard poured in 20 of his 27 first-half points in the opening 10 minutes and the Hilltoppers drained 11 3-point bombs – 5 by Bolon – to take a commanding 70-54 lead at intermission.
“The pace of the game was exactly the way we wanted it right from the start,” Howlett said. “Offensively, the first half was the best we’ve played all year. We shot the ball great but we also had guys step and make some serious passes.”
The West Liberty bench provided a huge lift late in the half. Even with Bolon’s prodigious output, Fairmont’s starters actually had a 51-49 scoring edge on WLU’s starters during the first 20 minutes but the Black and Gold reserves outscored the Falcon bench 21-3.
True freshman Zach Rasile played a major role in that production, going 4-for-4 from the 3-point arc in the waning minutes of the first half. He added another in the second half to finish with 17 points, including 5-for-5 from deep. Junior Malik McKinney was 3-for-3 from the arc coming off the bench, finishing with 21 points in 22 minutes.
“Zach’s a great shooter who’s getting more comfortable out there,” Howlett said. “Our bench is really good. Malik’s been playing great the last few games and we have some other guys who can come in and really contribute.”
Bolon passed the scoring torch to junior guard Pat Robinson in the second half but the Hilltopper train kept right on rolling. The margin reached 30 points for the first time, 94-64, on the second of back-to-back 3-pointers by McKinney with 12:49 still to play.
Significantly, as Howlett pointed out afterwards, it was Bolon – held scoreless in the second half – who passed up potential shot attempts of his own to assist on both of McKinney’s 3-pointers.
West Liberty coasted the rest of the way with Howlett resting most of his starters down the stretch. The biggest lead, 122-83, came with 4:01 to go on McKinney’s final basket of the night.
The silky smooth Robinson took game scoring honors with 30 points on 13-of-17 shooting from the floor. He also contributed 5 rebounds, 4 assists and a pair of steals in just 28 minutes of playing time.
“I know Pat had great offensive numbers but his defensive effort tonight was just off the charts,” Howlett said. “He was getting tips, jumping passing lanes, forcing turnovers. It looked like he was everywhere. When we have Pat and Dalton playing at the level they played at tonight, we’re a pretty good basketball team.”
West Liberty finished the night shooting 64 percent (48-of-75) from the floor, 61 percent (17-of-28) from the 3-point arc and were a perfect 13-of-13 from the charity stripe.
Isaiah Sanders and Dale Bonner poured in 27 and 23 points, respectively, to pace the visiting Falcons.
“We talked to our guys all week about the importance of this game in terms of MEC Tournament seeding and NCAA Tournament rankings,” Howlett said. “They knew there were a lot of things on the line tonight and I couldn’t be prouder of the way they responded.”
The Hilltoppers close out the regular season on the road at Ohio County rival Wheeling on Saturday. The game is set for a 4:30 p.m. start at the McDonough Center.