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WVC basketball: UC, West Liberty set for showdown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The West Liberty University men's basketball team has won 15 consecutive West Virginia Conference games, two regular-season league titles and three tournament crowns under Coach Jim Crutchfield, who is in his ninth season running the program.

The Hilltoppers are 78-2 in WVC play since the 2009-10 season and No. 1 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Top 25 Poll.

When they visit Eddie King Gym for tonight's 7:30 meeting with the University of Charleston, one fact hasn't been ignored among West Liberty's recent foes: the Hilltoppers (14-0, 8-0 WVC) are taking longer to put teams away.

For only the second time since the 2008-09 season, the Hilltoppers are on a regular-season winning streak during which they have won by 10 or fewer points. Wins over Pitt Johnstown (101-92), Shepherd (114-109) and Seton Hill (81-72) in their previous three games give hope to the Golden Eagles.

It's no cause for alarm for West Liberty, which leads the conference in points per possession (1.34), a dependable measure of a team's success no matter how many points they surrender per game.

"Our points per possession is good, that's what we look at," Crutchfield said. "We're shooting 55 percent from the floor and getting our fair share of offensive rebounds and shooting decent from the 3.

"I'm always concerned, but my general idea is the teams in the conference are a little stronger this year," Crutchfield said. "Shepherd shot 15-of-28 from the 3. We were down against Seton Hill and had a good run to start the second half.

"These teams are good, we'll just play as hard as we can and let the chips fall where they may."

West Liberty is led by guard Alex Falk, a 2011-12 All-America selection who averages a team-best 19.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals, 3.3 assists. Wheeling Jesuit transfer Cedric Harris averages 18.2 points, and forward C.J. Hester averages 14.4 points and 9.1 rebounds.

The Hilltoppers average 112.6 points per game and shoot 54.4 percent from the floor, both of which are No. 1 in the nation. However, no team in the WVC is better at holding down a team's field goal percentage then Charleston (40.4).

West Liberty is second in 3-point field goal percentage (41.7), and Charleston is third in 3-point field goal percentage defense (30.0).

Additionally, UC is the hottest team in the WVC not named West Liberty.

The Golden Eagles (11-2, 7-2) are coming off a 92-56 victory over rival West Virginia State in a game the Golden Eagles never trailed.

Coach Mark Downey's team has won six consecutive games, which includes four road games spanning the semester break, but the Golden Eagles haven't faced the test that confronts them tonight.

West Liberty has won its three meetings against UC since Downey arrived in 2010, including an overtime win in last year's WVC Tournament championship game.

His tactics haven't changed for tonight's meeting, which is expected to come in front of a raucous crowd on the first day of classes for the spring semester.

"We have to be smart about it," Downey said. "We'll pick and choose our spots when we attack and when we don't."

Charleston is led by Terrell Lipkins, who gives Downey the scoring threat he hasn't had at point guard his first two seasons. Lipkins averages 17.6 points, 5.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds.

There are four more double-figure scorers for UC, which is fifth in the league in points per game (84.8). Senior guard Evan Faulkner averages 11.5, Aleksander Kesic 11.3, Xavier Humphrey 10.6 and Robbie Dreher 10.

"We all have to put in a good 40 minutes as a team," said Humphrey, a senior who transferred from Marshall University before his junior season. "The State win was big for us, for us to win as a team and gel together as a unit."

He and Downey said the team won't have a problem putting the win over State behind them.

"We have a little saying, 'Don't get bored with success.' We won, yea, that's good, but we move to tomorrow."

This is the first of two regular-season meetings between the teams for the first time with Downey at UC, which visits West Liberty on Feb. 11.

The teams played in the WVC Tournament championship last season and made it to the Division II Atlantic Region. The Hilltoppers were region champions, and Charleston lost in the first round to Wheeling Jesuit.

The potential remains that the teams could play each other four times, but Downey doesn't want to wait for his first win against the Hilltoppers.

"When we have numbers, we want to go score on them, because that's when you do score on them," Downey said. "They give up easy baskets. That's why I don't play that way because it would drive me nuts. They're unbelievable at it."

In West Liberty's eight WVC games, the Hilltoppers have seven runs of 10 points or more.

"We can't hurt ourselves, we can't have careless mistakes," Downey said. "We have to defend them. They're going to make their 3s, we have to rebound their misses and we can't give up easy baskets. That's a lot of different things. You can't hurt yourself."

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at richstevens@dailymail.com or 304-348-4837.


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