By Shawn Rine for MountainEast.org
WHEELING, W.Va. – With the type of sustained success West Liberty has achieved in the last decade-plus, it’s not often it gets to check off new boxes on the program’s to-do list. After Sunday’s performance at WesBanco Arena, there’s one less opportunity to reach new heights remaining.
Marlon Moore Jr. came off the bench to score a career-high 24 points to go along with five rebounds, a championship-game record five blocked shots and two steals, as West Liberty (27-4) used a suffocating defense en route to a 73-60 victory against Charleston (25-6) to become the first Mountain East Conference men’s basketball team to follow up a regular-season title, by winning the postseason tournament.
“I think it’s actually harder to win the regular season than it is the conference tournament, but I wanted to win this thing really bad,” Coach Ben Howlett said after his No. 11-ranked Hilltoppers knocked off the tournament No. 2-seeded Golden Eagles for the second time in three meetings this season, for its 10th straight victory and 21st in the last 22 games. “I told the guys on Tuesday of last week that this was a three-day mission.
And for all the talk about West Liberty’s nation-leading offense, it was its defense that led the way to a championship. Charleston, which saw its eight-game winning streak snapped, turned it over 17 times, was limited to 36.2-percent shooting — WLU improved to 23-0 this season when holding its opponent to less than 50 percent — and was 6 of 29 from beyond the 3-point arc, which is a team-low in a MEC title game (20.7 percent). A big part of that early, was the Hilltoppers’ press. In the second half, the Hilltoppers sat down and guarded in the halfcourt.
“The key was our halfcourt defense,” Howlett said. “It was the best halfcourt defensive effort that we’ve had all season long.
“They had a hard time getting good shots in the second half. Just really proud of our guys’ effort.
“We were just talking as a coaching staff, and I think we’re still getting better.”
Howlett likely wouldn’t get any argument about that from Charleston coach Dwaine Osborne. He watched as his team was taken out of what it wanted to do, particularly by that first-half pressure.
“We’ve had three wars with them now this year,” Osborne said. “Today was pretty frustrating but at the end of the day we didn’t make enough shots and didn’t handle pressure very well, which we’ve done well all year long.
“We’ll go back and try to rest up, take a day off tomorrow and get back at it Tuesday to try to get ready for the national tournament.”
West Liberty was ice cold from the outset, but that defense and the play of Moore kept the top-seeded club in the game. UC took its biggest lead at 16:18 of the first half on a Keith Williams 3-pointer, but WLU responded with back-to-back shots behind the arc from Moore and Malik McKinney. With Charleston going through a scoring drought of 4:39, Moore hit another 3 to give the Hilltoppers a lead they did not relinquish, 24-21.
“It’s really frustrating because (Dalton) Bolon and (Will) Yoakum get a lot of the credit, and rightfully so, but I said yesterday I belive Pat Robinson should have been a first-team all-league player, in my mind,” Osborne said. “And I’m a big Marlon fan.
“I think Marlon is a great kid from what I know of him, and I thought he was phenomenal.”
Likewise, Howlett was impressed by the play of his 6-foot-5 junior.
“I thought (Moore) was huge in the press and in the halfcourt defense,” Howlett said. “I thought Marlon, that was the best I’ve ever seen him play.
“Not only was he making shots, but he was blocking shots and altering shots. He was pulling tough rebounds down.”
West Liberty went into the half with a 35-25 advantage after closing on a 16-2 run. In the second half, the depth of the Hilltoppers began to take over.
Charleston played nine guys, but three of those entered for the first time with a little more than one minute remaining in the game.
Playing three games in three nights and facing a team like West Liberty that presses the entire game on the backend, “doesn’t make it any easier, for sure,” Osborne said. “It’s a tall challenge and I think we were more than capable of winning the game today.
“Sometimes you play well and sometimes you don’t. We didn’t play as well as we needed to.
“I think we’re now 60-3, maybe 61-3 since I’ve been head coach at the University of Charleston, when we hold teams to 42 percent or less from the field and we outrebound them.
“We did that today and lost.”
The lead ballooned to 15 right out of the half as Robinson scored five of his 21 to make it a 40-25 game. Two possessions later it was a game-high 16, when Jon Alessandro buried a deep 3-pointer off an inbounds pass.
Charleston was able to hang around for the most part, but Tournament Most Valuable Player Will Yoakum and Robinson netted five straight midway through the second half for a 53-37 advantage.
The Golden Eagles were able to trim it to single digits one more time (60-51) on three of Seth O’Neal’s team-high 22 points, but WLU immediately responded on buckets by Robinson and Moore, with the later coming via a nice assist from Bolon.
Robinson, a transfer, joined Yoakum on the All-Tournament team for West Liberty. Drew Rackley, who netted 14 points, and Devon Robinson, who had six and a game-high 14 rebounds, were UC’s representatives.
“I came here because I wanted to win,” Pat Robinson said. “I can go to plenty of schools and score points and get accolades, but ultimately I want to win.
“Coach Howlett told me that if I come here we’re going to win, and that’s exactly what we did.
“So it’s exactly what I expected.”
This was the third time the two schools have met in the MEC Tournament, with Charleston winning the previous two in 2014 and 2018. West Liberty improved to 2-2 in MEC title games overall, and has beaten the Golden Eagles in 24 of the last 29 matchups.
Rounding out the All-Tournament Team were Concord’s Trey Brisco, the West Virginia State duo of Glen Abram and Anthony Pittman, and Fairmont’s Dale Bonner. UC’s Devon Robinson was presented the Heart and Hustle Award, while Abram led the tournament in scoring with an average of more than 28 points in two games.
By Shawn Rine for MountainEast.org