Hilltoppers Are Champs of MEC | News, Sports, Jobs

Photo by Joe Lovell
The West Liberty men’s basketball team marched through the MEC Tournament and finished with the trophy after Sunday’s title game victory against Charleston.

WHEELING — The best teams find ways to win, no matter the circumstances.

The West Liberty men proved just how good they are this weekend, winning their third MEC Tournament Championship by defeating Charleston 70-59 inside WesBanco Arena Sunday evening.

“I thought we won three games in three different ways this weekend,” said WLU coach Ben Howlett. “Friday versus Wheeling, we were kind of rusty, didn’t play our brand of basketball and did not play well, Saturday, I thought we played the best we have all year and (Sunday), I thought we just had to grind it out.”

The Hilltoppers (29-2, 23-2 MEC) did not get a big performance out of their usually-explosive offense nor could they rely much on their ultra-disruptive defense as Charleston (24-6, 19-5) forced WLU to play their way Sunday.

“I thought we really struggled on offense in the first half and it was a grind-it-out win in the second half,” Howlett said. “They’re really disciplined, they don’t get too far away from what they do. We do have a hard time of speeding them up at times…but, we found a way to win. Good teams find a way to win, especially in March and we were able to do that (Sunday).”

“That, to me, was a heavyweight fight, it was a slugfest,” said UC coach Dwaine Osborne. “I thought our kids were warriors and fought and fought and just came up a little bit short. It’s tough, but it’s the way the game goes sometimes.

“I just feel bad that I couldn’t figure out a way to help us get over the hump.”

UC led 29-28 at halftime and held WLU to just 29% shooting in the first half while the Golden Eagles were shooting 40% from the floor.

“We were actually encouraged in the locker room at halftime because we were not making shots but we were only down one point,” Howlett said.

Powering Charleston was big man Lamont McManus, who tore through the competition all tournament long. The fifth-year senior scored the first nine points of the game for UC and finished with a game-high 20, his third 20-point performance of the tournament.

“I thought he was an absolute warrior for the weekend, he was unbelievable,” Osborne said. “The number of times, in any sport or at any level, you would have the most valuable player of a tournament come from a losing team, I get that it doesn’t really happen.

“But, if there was any better player in the tournament this weekend, I didn’t see him.”

Lacking superior size, West Liberty rotated several players on and off of McManus, including Viktor Kovacevic, Marlon Moore and Bryce Butler.

With Charleston leading 43-35 a few minutes into the second half, the Hilltoppers finally went on their one and only run of the game, a 10-point spurt capped off by a couple of layups by Kovacevic that put them up 45-43.

“We told the guys at halftime that there would be some point in the second half where we were going to go on a run and when we go on this run, we need to put them away,” Howlett said.

That burst paved the way for a seven-minute stretch where WLU out-scored UC 20-6, giving them a 54-49 lead.

Charleston did not go away, however, and cut the lead to 57-55 with four minutes to play. That is when Kovacevic connected on a 3-pointer, one of just three WLU treys in the entire game, that gave the Hilltoppers just enough breathing room to hang on for the win.

“It was huge because we couldn’t make threes,” Howlett said. “(Kovacevic) was the only guy who could make shots for us today. I thought the best play of the game was that three.”

Kovacevic led WLU with 19 points while Butler finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds.

Will Yoakum finished with 10 points and junior Pat Robinson supplied eight. Robinson was also named the tournament MVP.

“I think the whole team was the MVP,” he admitted.

McManus led UC with 20 points, followed by 19 from Keith Williams. They were both named to the All-Tournament team, along with Yoakum. Also on the All-Tournament team were Wheeling’s Jordan Reid, Concord’s Matt Weir and Fairmont State’s Isaiah Sanders.

This is West Liberty’s third men’s MEC Tournament Championship as they also won in 2020 and 2018. They remain the only men’s team to win the tournament multiple times.

“I think it’s a great credit to our team and how hard we’ve worked and everything we’ve done up until this point,” said Butler, the MEC’s Player of the Year. “We’re not satisfied though, we’re ready for the next tournament next week.”

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