WEST LIBERTY - The No. 1-ranked West Liberty University men's basketball team bounced back from its first loss of the season in dominating fashion Saturday afternoon, blasting out to a 28-point first-half lead en route to a 103-71 rout of Charleston before another capacity crowd at the ASRC.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (17-1, 13-1) led wire-to-wire in the matchup of the Mountain East Conference's top two teams. WLU jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first two minutes and never took its foot off the gas against a stunned squad of Golden Eagles (13-5, 10-4).
"That's probably the best game we've played all year," said Crutchfield, whose team was coming off an 89-87 upset loss to Notre Dame (OH) on Thursday, "especially against a team as hot as Charleston. They'd won 8 in a row coming in here and were just crushing people. They beat Fairmont by 15 points in Fairmont and had Shepherd down by 20-some in Charleston.
"We knew we'd have to play much better basketball than we have been playing to get a win today and our guys rose to the challenge."
After letting a double-digit second-half lead slip away on Thursday, West Liberty quickly pushed out to a double-digit lead on Saturday and put the game out of reach well before halftime.
The Golden Eagles trimmed the margin under 10 for the final time, 27-18, on a Denzel Douglas 3-pointer with 6:22 on the first-half clock but C.J. Hester drained back-to-back 3-pointers to spark one of the Hilltoppers' patented scoring blitzes.
With a rejuvenated full-court press making the Golden Eagles uncomfortable when not creating scoring chances off turnovers, West Liberty broke the game wide open with a 21-4 run.
Mike Lamberti's conventional 3-point play capped the surge, giving the Hilltoppers an insurmountable 48-22 lead with 1:47 left before halftime.
West Liberty settled for a 50-28 halftime bulge and picked up right where it had left off when play resumed, pushing the lead out to 30 points in the first 5 minutes of the second half and leading by as many as 34 points down the stretch.
An improved defensive effort keyed the win as the Hilltoppers held UC to just 33 percent shooting (10-of-30) from the floor while taking control of the game in the first half and just 38 percent (23-of-60) on the afternoon. West Liberty also dominated the glass at both ends of the court, outrebounding the Golden Eagles by a 47-33 margin with 18 of those boards coming at the offensive end.
"This was an important win but it was also an important lesson for us on the value of playing hard at all times," Crutchfield said. "We came out with good intensity today and maintained it for 40 minutes against a very good basketball team."
Cedric Harris led the way with 25 points and 6 assists both game-highs while Hester posted his 6th double-double of the season and 30th of his career with 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds. Keene Cockburn made his presence felt with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks and a pair of steals while Devin Hoehn (17 points), Zak Kirkbride (12 points) and Lamberti (11 points) all hit double-figures in their first career starts.
Tino DiTrapano went 10-for-10 from the foul line and finished with 16 points to pace four double-figure scorers for Charleston.
West Liberty hits the MEC road on Monday with a 7:30 p.m. game at West Virginia State.