MEC Men’s Basketball Semifinals Recap

The Free Press WV

Charleston 95, West Liberty 93

Undaunted, unfazed, and untouched, the University of Charleston men’s basketball team turned away high-powered West Liberty for the second time in as many chances at the Mountain East Conference Tournament.

Senior Austin Howard hit a pair of free throws with 8.8 seconds left in overtime, completing a comeback from 23 points to shock the Hilltoppers 95-93 at the Charleston Civic Center on Friday night.

The Golden Eagles advance to Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. tournament championship game against the winner of Saturday’s late semifinal between Wheeling and Concord.

Charleston (18-12) has not beaten West Liberty in an MEC regular season since the league debuted in 2013, but the Eagles handed the Hilltoppers a 63-60 defeat in the tournament championship game that season.

That was the last time the teams met in the tourney.

“Maybe we should just tell them we’ll play tournament games all the time,” UC Coach Dwaine Osborne said. “We talked about that, being the last time we played West Liberty in the tournament. They were averaging 100 points per game and we beat them 63-60. Three or four weeks before that we lost 103-71. It just goes to show that if you have some resiliency and toughness, you can figure it out.”

West Liberty (26-2) hadn’t missed a beat under first-year coach Ben Howlett since he took over for Jim Crutchfield. Crutchfield took over the struggling program at Nova Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, leaving behind a legacy as the winningest coach in NCAA history with at least 10 years of service.

Still, his Hilltoppers had not won the MEC Tournament until last season, and they won’t this season.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Howlett said. “I haven’t been a part of too many losses … it’s 21 now, to be exact.”

Charleston’s motivation was that a loss meant no postseason beyond this week. West Liberty, the No. 2 team in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region and eighth in the NABC Top 25, will receive a bid in the regional.
West Liberty came out firing and pushed out to a 50-27 lead with 3:04 remaining in the first half.

Very little was going right for the Golden Eagles.

“It didn’t look very good,” Osborne said. “We weren’t able to get stops or finish possessions. When we did get stops, it seemed they got an offensive rebound. Seth (O’Neal) gave us a huge lift. We were down 24-12 and then get get another point (when video confirmed an O’Neal 3-pointer for the half’s last bucket). Then we had 20 minutes to erase an 11-point deficit.”

Howlett took the heat for the loss, lamenting some lineup changes late in the first half.

“I was thinking this game is going the way we want it to this point, so I thought I would put some guys in and get them some time,” Howlett said. “I got a little crazy there with substitutions late in the first half and that’s when they made their run.”

Charleston finally eliminated any deficit when a Kier Anderson – who had a game-high 30 points – scored to give UC a one-point lead with 5:09 remaining.

There were four more lead changes to come.

Following a Dan Monteroso free throw to give West Liberty an 86-83 at the 40-second mark. Eighteen seconds later, Anderson hit the fifth of his seven 3-point attempts to tie the score.

In overtime, Charleston freshman Lamont McManus missed a pair of free throws with 40 seconds on the clock. He was 8-of-11 from the floor and finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

“I just had the flow of the game,” McManus said. “I get in foul trouble a lot. They take a lot of charges on me and I had to be real decisive. If I don’t see help coming, I take it to the basket. If there’s help, that’s when I kick it out.”

Howard picked him up with two free throws sandwiching a West Liberty timeout with nine seconds left.

West Liberty senior Jordan Watson, a transfer from Lincoln University, misfired on a 3-pointer with three seconds left.

O’Neal had 15 points and seven assists to help the Golden Eagles, while Jordan Smith added 11.

Monteroso had 29 points to lead the way for West Liberty, and freshman Dalton Bolon finished with 23. Brandon Smith added 18 for the Hilltoppers.

Wheeling Jesuit 83, Concord 69

Second-seeded Wheeling Jesuit quickly erased a four-point halftime deficit by opening the final half with a 17-2 run in the first 4:14 and as a result cruised to an 83-69 victory over sixth-seeded Concord in the semifinals of the Mountain East Conference Tournament here Saturday evening at the Charleston Civic Center.

The win was the eighth in a row for the Cardinals who improved to 25-5 and earned the right to play for their first-ever MEC Tournament title. WJU was eliminated in the semifinals the last three seasons.

Wheeling will square off Sunday at 3:45 p.m. with fifth-seeded University of Charleston (18-12) which eliminated top-seeded West Liberty Saturday evening, 95-93, in overtime.

“It’s always nice to get to the championship,” veteran Wheeling Jesuit coach Danny Sancomb said. “We’ve lost some tough semifinal games in this tournament, so we’re happy to be here, but we want to finish the job.
Cardinal senior forward and MEC Player of the Year Haywood Highsmith, who posted his conference-leading 27th double-double performance of the season inSaturday’s win with 22 points and 13 rebounds, agrees.

“This chance means a lot to me,” Highsmith said. “A lot of seniors don’t get the opportunity to play for a title. I’ve never won one so it’s cool to be in the championship game, but the plan is to win it. We came down here to get three. We’ve gotten two so far. We’ve just got to get the next one. It would mean a lot to me as a senior to get a championship for my team.”

Trailing 41-37 at the break, WJU started the second half like a team on a mission. Back-to-back 3-point field goals by Brent Pegram and Drake Goddard started the game-changing 17-2 spurt which gave the Cardinals a 54-43 lead it never relinquished. Concord, which made just one field goal in the first 10 minutes of the second half, got within eight twice in the final 14 minutes but could never get any closer.

“They started to gain some confidence there,” Concord junior guard Tommy Bolte said. “We were sitting in our zone and they hit a couple of threes and it really got them going. We were never really able to bounce back from that. I think that run right there really decided the game.”

Concord, which shot close to 50 percent in the opening half, cooled off considerably in the final 20 minutes and connected on just 9-of-26 field goal attempts.

“It was difficult for us early because they came out extremely hot and made a lot of threes, including a couple that they banked in,” Sancomb said. “We trusted the process, though, and continued to play our game. I think our will on the glass was very important and our defense, which is who we are. In a league that is all about scoring we are all about playing great defense and in the second half we were able to really lock in, make things difficult for them and limit them to one shot.”

Wheeling overcame a subpar shooting performance itself (25-of-64, 39.1 percent) by dominating Concord on the glass. The Cardinals held a 49-29 edge on the backboards, including a 20-5 advantage on the offensive glass.

“I thought our team did a really good job of executing our game plan and what we had hoped to get done on the defensive end,” Concord coach Todd May said. “A team as good as Wheeling Jesuit is, to hold them to 39 percent shooting and 36 percent from three is good, but we just weren’t able to rebound at the level we needed to and all the credit goes to them on that. They’re extremely athletic, extremely big and they kind of punched us on that.

“I’m extremely proud of my team, though. No one expected us to be here, but they showed a lot of toughness and grit throughout the year.”

Preston Boswell led Wheeling Jesuit in scoring with 23 points and seven rebounds. The Cardinals also got 21 points and four assists from Pegram.

Bolte, who had an MEC Tournament game record 51 points Friday in the Mountain Lions’ quarterfinal round win over Fairmont State, finished with 28 points and seven assists Saturday evening to pace Concord. B.J. Hamlet added 12 points, all of which came in the game’s first 5:20.

Wheeling Jesuit won both of its regular season meetings with Charleston, but both were close contests. The Cardinals claimed a 90-87 victory in overtime in Charleston on January 04 and then won, 75-69, in Wheeling on February 08. That victory started WJU’s current eight-game winning streak.

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