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WVC basketball: Fairmont State cruises into semifinals

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fairmont State entered Thursday's West Virginia Conference tournament quarterfinal against Seton Hill with memories of a sunrise practice still lingering in its mind.

That 5 a.m. session was Falcons Coach Jerrod Calhoun's response to what he considered a lackluster performance following a Feb. 21 loss at Seton Hill. Those memories helped spur Fairmont State to its first WVC semifinal since 2001.

The Falcons got 25 points from Malik Stith and 23 from Isaac Thornton to cruise past the Griffins, 77-63, at the Civic Center. Fairmont State (21-7) will face Alderson-Broaddus at 6:30 p.m. today in hopes of reaching its first conference title game since 1985.

FSU's performance was a big shift from its last game versus the Griffins, a 76-73 loss. The Falcons let Seton Hill shoot 54.5 percent from the floor in that game and trailed by 15 points at halftime. Calhoun decided to shock them back to attention with that early morning practice.

"We just didn't guard," Calhoun said. "We weren't active. We watched the tape, played a little zone (Thursday), and that made a big difference."

The Griffins (16-12) shot just 34 percent from the floor at the Civic Center and scored just six baskets inside the arc. Seton Hill's chance to contend in Thursday's game disappeared in a 20-3 Fairmont State run in the middle of the first half.

The Griffins began the game red hot from beyond the arc, making its first four 3-pointers. When Max Kenyi laid the ball in with 10:06 left in the first half, Seton Hill led 16-10.

Led by Stith and Thornton, the Falcons stormed back over the next six minutes. Stith, a St. John's transfer who was an all-WVC second-team selection, scored nine points in the run, while Thornton, an all-WVC first-team pick, scored five. Melvin Rhodes' free throws with 4:09 left put the Falcons up 30-19.

Fairmont State forced 12 of Seton Hill's 15 turnovers in the first half and controlled the glass the entire game. The Falcons outrebounded the Griffins 52-36 on Thursday, winning 24-11 on the offensive glass.

"That's the heart of this program," Thornton said. "Coach stresses that every day. We weren't active and playing defense up there (Feb. 21), but tonight I think we did a better job on the defensive end."

The Falcons' dominance underneath the hoop turned into an avalanche of points. Fairmont State outscored Seton Hill 50-10 in the paint and 28-13 on second-chance points. And those 15 Griffins turnovers turned into 20 Falcons points.

"They played a very good game and a very aggressive game," Seton Hill Coach Tony Morocco said. "They're a good group of kids and they're strong physically. They took us out of a lot of things we wanted to run.

"This team, in my opinion, plays the best defense in the league," he added. "They probably have the best balance, one to six or seven with good players."

Oliver McGlade led Seton Hill with 24 points, hitting 6 of 9 3-pointers, but he was the only Griffins player in double figures. Kenyi and Malachi Leonard scored nine points each, but went a combined 4 for 11 from the floor.

Calhoun's 21 wins as a first-year Falcons coach ties Joe Retton for the best first-year total in program history. The former West Virginia assistant understands what basketball means at Fairmont State, where the Falcons have won 16 regular-season conference titles and 10 conference tournament championships. And in turning the team around from an eight-win finish the season before, the Falcons are moving closer to returning to that level.

"We've all been waiting for this moment," Calhoun said. "These guys have been through a lot, these seniors. They went through a coaching change and won eight games last season. They've had a lot of perseverance. We've just come together throughout the course of the year.

"We're as good as any team out there when we play defense and rebound," he added. "If these guys continue to do it, we'll make a run."

 Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.


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