CHARLESTON, W.Va. 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.
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 following the 2012-13 academic year 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 3-pointer 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 3-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 3-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 game's next 17 points on 13-of-14 shooting from the charity stripe to all but put the game out of reach, 76-56, with 6 minutes remaining.
Fairmont got back-to-back 3-pointers 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 6 assists and 4 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 3 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 8-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."
X Falk may have needed an extra suitcase to bring back all of his hardware. In addition to his second straight Tournament MVP Award, the senior also won the Galperin Award as the tournament's leading scorer along with the George Springer Sportsmanship Award also for the second straight year and was named to the All-Tournament Team
X Hester and Dyer joined Falk on the All-Tournament Team
X Crutchfield has won 20 of the 21 games he's coached against Fairmont during his 9-year run
X Saturday's championship game win was the Hilltoppers' 124th victory in the past four seasons
X The NCAA Division II record for wins in four consecutive years is 127, set by Kentucky Wesleyan from 1998 to 2001
X West Liberty improved to 139-5 (.965) under Crutchfield when shooting 50 percent or better from the floor including a perfect 21-0 mark this year
X Fairmont State is the only other school to sweep three straight WVIAC regular season and tournament titles. The Falcons won four in a row from 1973-76 under the legendary Joe Retton