CHARLESTON - No. 1-ranked West Liberty broke open a close game midway through the second half and led by as many as 20 points down the stretch in coasting to its third straight West Virginia Conference tournament championship with a 92-78 victory against regionally-ranked Fairmont State Saturday.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (30-1) became only the second team in the league's 76-year history to sweep the regular season and tournament titles in three consecutive seasons, a feat which held special significance for West Liberty's 5-time WVIAC Coach of the Year.
"It always feels great to win a championship," Crutchfield said, "but this one might mean a little more to me simply because it's the last one for a great league. I'm a West Virginia guy and I grew up around this tournament. To think that this league has been around since 1924 and our guys won the last three championships, that's something they can be proud of for a very long time."
The WVIAC will be dissolved with most of the current members moving into the newly-formed Mountain East Conference.
The Hilltoppers and the Falcons (22-8), ranked No. 1 and No. 5, respectively, in the Atlantic Region, battled to a near-standstill through an up-tempo first half which saw six ties and seven lead changes before West Liberty took a 42-40 halftime lead.
Chris Morrow's trey with 16:11 remaining not only put the Hilltoppers ahead to stay, 49-48, it ignited an extended West Liberty surge that would all but put the game out of reach.
C.J. Hester pushed the margin to 63-52 with a conventional three-point play on a fast break with 11:26 remaining but the Hilltoppers were far from finished.
Fairmont State, which had been overplaying West Liberty on the perimeter in an attempt to limit WLU's three-point shot opportunities, now seemed to ratchet up its defensive intensity even more and aggressively challenged every Hilltopper move to the basket.
The Falcons began sending West Liberty to the foul line on nearly every possession and the Hilltoppers - one of the nation's top free throw shooting teams took full advantage.
West Liberty scored 13 of the next 17 points - on 13-of-14 shooting from the charity stripe - to all but put the game out of reach, 76-56, with six minutes remaining.
Fairmont got back-to-back threes from Chase Morgan to key a rally that ultimately got the margin into single figures, 81-72, on a pair of Andre Thornton free throws with 2:57 to play but the Hilltoppers didn't blink.
Alex Falk - on his way to a second consecutive WVIAC Tournament MVP Award - dropped in a floating leaner to restore the double-digit lead, 83-72, with 2:35 on the clock and four more free throws pushed the lead back up to 87-72 heading into the final 90 seconds.
Falk's leaner was the first basket for West Liberty since Hester's fast-break hoop at 11:26. The Hilltoppers were 0-for-3 from the floor against the aggressive FSU defense during that crucial stretch but weathered the Falcon storm by going 18-for-20 from the line.
Falk, the WVIAC Player of the Year, put on a clinic in the second half with 19 of his game-high 27 points. The senior standout also chipped in with six assists and four steals while cashing in a career-high 13-of-15 free throws. Hester turned in his second straight double-double with 21 points and 14 rebounds while freshman Bubby Goodwin tied a career-high with 18 points. Shawn Dyer rounded out the double-figure scorers with 12 points to go along with three steals.
After missing their only free throw in the first half, the Hilltoppers went 29-of-32 (91 percent) from the line in the final 20 minutes.
Thornton and Malik Stith led the Falcons with 17 points each as the unsung WLU defense held Fairmont State to 39 percent shooting (27-of-70), including a dismal 30 percent (12-of-40) showing in the second half.
West Liberty is the odds-on favorite to host the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional, which will be played over the St. Patrick's Day weekend. The regional ranking committee will announce the tournament host and the eight-team regional field on March 10.
"I'm really proud of my guys," Crutchfield said. "I thought we played about as well as we could play down here the last couple of days, which shows we're capable of playing anywhere. Even so, we'd love to play the regional at our place again.
"That's always a great atmosphere and I think it would be a great reward for our fans, who have really supported us all year."