WVC basketball: UC dethrones West Liberty
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mark Downey decided that West Liberty would have to beat his University of Charleston team from long range.
A strange strategy, perhaps, as the Hilltoppers - ranked No. 1 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Poll - are also the nation's fifth-best 3-point shooting team.
Strange sometimes works, and it did for UC on Monday, as the Golden Eagles led for the final 22:59 in a 101-96 upset of the Hilltoppers on Monday night in front of a reported attendance of 1,682 at Eddie King Gym.
The last time the Golden Eagles (11-2, 7-2 West Virginia Conference) beat a No. 1 team in Charleston was on Feb. 4, 1969 when UC - then Morris Harvey College - upset Coach Joe Retton's Fairmont State top-ranked team 88-78.
"There's pressure being No. 1," said Downey, whose 2010-11 Arkansas Tech team held the No. 1 spot in NCAA Division II for seven weeks before losing. "I told them I was there. We were 25-0 before we got beat. (West Liberty) is a different breed. They've been there, they know that pressure. They're winners."
Not on this night, when West Liberty was 15-of-41 from 3-point range, and shot 36.5 percent from the field, where it was 54.4 for the season. The Hilltoppers (14-1, 8-1) were a 61-percent team from inside the arc, but shot 54.3 against UC.
"I think they beat people with easy baskets," said Downey, whose team has won seven consecutive games and could dent the Top 25 when the poll is released today. "Last year we gave up 21 layups. I watched the Wheeling tape, and Wheeling beat them and West Liberty made 18 3s, and still lost by 10.
"We figured if we can limit their easy baskets and they miss enough 3s ... and that's what we did."
The UC zone in the first half allowed some open looks for the Hilltoppers, but once UC grabbed the lead, West Liberty couldn't get the momentum back.
"Our staple in the past is to hit those shots early on, get them out of their zone, spread them out, go to the bucket and run our motion offense," said Alex Falk, a 2011-12 All-American. "Hand it to them, they played hard and we didn't hit the shots we needed to."
West Liberty's frantic attempt to get back in the game, which it trailed by 85-74 with 5:31 left, put it in position to tie it in the waning moments.
A 3-pointer Falk cut the lead to 99-96 with 12 seconds remaining. West Liberty had to foul, sending guard Evan Faulkner to the line for two shots. He missed both, and Hilltoppers forward Chris Morrow rebounded and called a timeout.
"That helped," said Downey of the timeout, which gave him a chance to set up his defense and position it to foul. "Me and Evan had talked about it. We were going to foul around halfcourt even if they didn't call timeout."
Out of West Liberty's timeout, the ball was inbounded to redshirt freshman guard Bubby Goodwin, who was fouled at halfcourt near the sideline. Needing three points, but having only a one-and-one, he missed the front end and UC rebounded to seal the victory.
Robbie Dreher led the Golden Eagles with 21 points and four assists, but it was the post play of Aleksander Kesic, which ultimately made the difference when West Liberty struggled to defend the post.
The 6-foot-8 freshman had 20 points, nine rebounds and was 7-of-8 from the free throw line. He also hit his only 3-pointer of the game with 5:46 left to snap an 82-82 tie.
"I haven't played a big game in two years, I redshirted," said Kesic, a former Huntington Prep player. "I just needed time to fit in and I was really motivated tonight because it was the No. 1 team and I wanted my team to win, so that was the biggest thing."
This marks the earliest West Liberty has lost a conference game in more than three years, when West Virginia State handed the Hilltoppers a 117-116 defeat in overtime on Dec. 12, 2009.
It's also only the third regular-season conference loss for West Liberty since the 2008-09 season and Coach Jim Crutchfield's team has not lost more than one league game in a season since going 16-4 that year.
"I think the key to the game was they went zone in the first half and we had six or seven pretty clean looks where we usually hit a decent percentage of and I think we missed seven in a row," Crutchfield said. "Bottom line, they have a very good team, very well coached, and they just beat us. I know when we've been beaten."
West Liberty made 10 more 3-pointers than the Golden Eagles and had a 44-40 rebounding edge.
In fact, the Hilltoppers finished with 25 assists to only 10 for Charleston.
The Golden Eagles were 40-of-55 from the free throw line, while West Liberty was 13-of-24.
Guard Terrell Lipkins finished with 20 points and five rebounds, while Faulkner added 15 points and Xavier Humphrey 11.
The Hilltoppers were led by Falk with 20 points, but he was just 2-of-9 from 3-point range, hitting his first with 7:59 left in the game to give West Liberty a three-point lead.
Charleston is off for a week before it hosts Seton Hill on Jan. 21.
West Liberty faces Fairmont - one of only two conference losses for Charleston - at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at West Liberty.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at email@example.com or 304-348-4837.