MEC Men’s Basketball Semifinal Recap

The Free Press WV

West Liberty 88, Concord 84

West Liberty earned an opportunity to become the first team in conference history to win both Mountain East Conference regular-season and tournament championships. But much like its two previous meetings with Concord, victory did not come easily.

Eric Meininger scored 24 points to lead four double-digit scorers and also ripped down 11 rebounds as the top-seeded Hilltoppers (26-3), who are also the fifth-ranked team in the country, survived the No. 5 Mountain Lions (20-10) by an 88-84 count Friday night at WesBanco Arena.

“I want to give credit to Concord. They’re a really good college basketball team,” WLU coach Ben Howlett said. “We’ve had some really good games with them this year.

“The old saying is it’s hard to beat a good basketball team three times, and we just beat a really good basketball team three teams.

“It’s was probably the hardest-fought game we’ve played all season. Every loose ball and every shot was challenged.’’

It was a frustrating ending to the season for Concord, which suffered three of its 10 losses to West Liberty, with those coming by a total of nine points.

“We try to put them in the best position, but it’s a credit to our guys,” Concord coach Todd May said. “Different people have different ideas about how to try and attack their press. People break it and try to slow it down and grind it out, but we try to run with them and I don’t know if that’s the best thing.

“We’re right there where we need to be. A break here or a break there and it’s a different outcome.’’

Neither team led by more than seven points throughout, with the difference turning out to be rebounding. West Liberty won that battle, 50-32, with 16 of those coming on the offensive glass. In addition to Meininger’s game-high 11 boards, Dalton Bolon had 10, Luke Dyer corralled eight and Will Yoakum seven.

“This is just from my perspective of scouting them and seeing them, but they’re coming to the offensive glass,” May said. “Their philosophy is that if they miss it, they can go get it. And if they make it they can go right into their press.

“We knew we had to get back and be a hammer, as we say, to get defensive rebounds. They should get a lot more credit for that because they put a huge amount of pressure on you in that area.’’

The Hilltoppers opened a 78-71 lead midway through the second half and looked as though they were primed to take over the game, but Jair Rodgers (six 3-pointers), who scored 19 of his 28 in the first half, hit a pair of free throws and Tommy Bolte connected for 3 of his game-high 32 to cut it back to two.

The Mountain Lions drew even for the eighth and final time on a Bolte reverse with 1:55 to go that made it 80-80. But Bolon cashed a pair at the line on the next trip and Concord came up empty on its next two possessions, including a diving steal by Dyer that resulted in his being fouled. Dyer sank both for an 84-80 upper hand.

After Rodgers got to the rim to make it a one-possession game, Meininger made 1 of 2 at the line before Bolte was forced into a tough, off-balance 3 attempt that was off the mark. The ball went out of bounds to West Liberty, which improved its MEC Tourney-best record to 10-4.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about (Meininger). He was unbelievable,” Howlett said. “He wasn’t going to let us lose. He’s the reason we won.’’

Freshmen Yahel Hill and Yoakum each netted 18 for the Hilltoppers. Dyer had an all-around game with four points, the eight rebounds, five assists and three steals.

The chance at making history means a great deal to Meininger.

“ I’m sure it would mean a lot to us and especially me being a senior,” he said. “Going out as the first (No.) 1 seed to win the conference tournament would be a great accomplishment not only for me, but for all these guys and Coach Howlett.’’

In addition to his 32 points, Bolte finished his final career game with five rebounds, four steals and two assists.

“Really it hasn’t hit me and I’m trying not to be too emotional,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride and we’ve seen the ups and the downs.’’

Malik Johnson contributed 10 points, eight boards and four assists to the Concord cause.

Notre Dame 85, Fairmont State 67

Playing the percentages, Fairmont State coach Joe Mazzulla opted to double-team Mountain East Conference Player of the Year Will Vorhees as well as all-league guard Larenz Thurman each time they caught the basketball Friday night during a tournament semifinal at WesBanco Arena. NDC teammates made them pay.

Isaiah Sanders and Bruce Hodges combined for 39 points as No. 3 Notre Dame (22-8) tied a tournament record with 15 made 3-pointers in a victory against Fairmont (22-8) that sends it to is second tournament final in school history. ND takes on top-seeded West Liberty in the title game at 4 p.m. today, with an automatic berth in the NCAA Division-II Tournament at stake.

“Any time you win in this tournament with how good this league is – the players the coaches – it’s an absolutely huge win,” Notre Dame coach Tim Koenig said. “I’m really proud (because) the guys who don’t really get a lot of publicity and a lot of credit … Fairmont State decided to leave a couple guys and Isaiah made shots, Bruce made shots and Halil Parks (12 points) made shots.

“Other guys stepped up.’’

Trailing 24-22 late in the first half, Notre Dame went on a game-changing 22-5 run in 4:41. It hit six 3-pointers including five in a row to turn a two-point deficit into a 44-29 lead with 2:12 to go before the break.

While the results surprised Mazzulla, the method was exactly what he wanted.

“You can sit here and say two things. You can say their two first-team all-league guys beat us or you can say their bench beat us,” Mazzulla said. “Take a look at the box score when we played at their place and they shot 17 percent from 3 and had 56 paint points.

“So you go in a game and you either control the 3-point line or you control the paint. (Friday) they got 26 paint points and shot 60 percent from 3.

“We picked our poison and we did our best to execute it.”

A 45-38 halftime lead quickly ballooned as NDC got one open look after another beyond the arc. The final numbers showed expert ball movement and spacing led to Koenig’s team making 15 of 25 from 3-point range.

“It was big to see the ball go in,” Hodges said. “When one of them goes in it gives our team confidence.

“It feels good to be on the better end of that run. If they’re going to give me wide-open shots I have to shoot them or I’m hurting our team.”

Two baskets by R.J. Hutcherson –including a 3-pointer – and a basket by Vonte Montgomery got FSU within 53-47, by that quickly changed with another spurt.

Notre Dame caught fire again by connecting on seven straight shots including a pair of 3-pointers from Sanders. That burst turned a four-point Fairmont deficit into 17 in the blink of an eye, 57-40. The margin reached as big as 24 on a 3 from Parks and the rest was history.

Vorhees, showing a willingness to find the open man, added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists for NDC. Thurman managed 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists against a single turnover.

“This whole year we’ve had teams down like that and we’ve been stressing being able to put them away,” Vorhees said. “We would let them come back and we would see ourselves in a dogfight.

“(Friday) I felt we kept the pressure on them even though we got a big lead.’’

Jason Jolly paced Fairmont with 15 points while Montgomery and Hutcherson evenly divided 26. Cole Vonhandorf contributed 12.

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