West Liberty denied in MEC title game

WHEELING — Going into Mountain East Conference Tournament weekend, one of the more interesting facts that stood out was the top seed on the men’s side had never won the hardware. That fact still holds strong.

Mountain East Conference Player of the Year Will Vorhees poured in 29 and grabbed 14 rebounds to help No. 3 seeded Notre Dame secure a victory over top-seeded West Liberty, 100-96, to claim a Mountain East Conference Tournament title Sunday afternoon at WesBanco Arena.

“It was a dream and it was a goal,” Notre Dame coach Tim Koenig said. “We’ve talked about it. We’ve never gone to the national tournament, never won the conference outright in the history of the program. Obviously, I’m so happy and proud for the guys. Not just these guys, I got a bunch of texts. Of course, you’re going to get the texts from former players, former coaches. I want to thank all the former players and former coaches and how happy and proud they are of this team. It’s unbelievable. It really is. We’re really appreciative that we get to play another day. It’s such a great feeling to finally cut down the nets and be able to play another day.”

The Hilltoppers were down by as many as eight points in the second half, but clawed their way back in what was a back-and-forth contest.

Down by four, Luke Dyer hit a crucial 3-pointer to get the Hilltoppers within one. After a missed layup, Yahel Hill scored on a fastbreak to put the Hilltoppers up by one, 91-90, with 2:53 remaining.

That was the final lead for West Liberty.

Bruce Hodges scored with 1:58 to go thanks to an assists by Vorhees, who had eight.

Still breathing life, the Falcons (23-8) all but took it out of the Hilltoppers. After the Hilltoppers grabbed a defensive rebound, Halil Parks stripped the ball near midcourt, Hodges picked it up and tossed it to Isaiah Sanders, who dunked it to make it 98-93 with 11 seconds.

Hill answered quickly for the Hilltoppers with his seventh 3-pointer of the game.

But a pair of Vorhees free throws with six seconds left put the game on ice.

“I thought we played hard, but we had a tough time defending them in the half court,” West Liberty (26-4) coach Ben Howlett said. “Any time a team can shoot 62 percent from the floor, you’re probably not going to win to many games. On top of that, when you lose a rebounding war, 41-25, you’re probably never going to win a basketball game that way. Give them credit. They made shots and I think they have the best player in the country in Will Vorhees. He’s a handful in there.

“These guys need a day off. A lot of these guys have played a lot of minutes. So a day off (Monday) will do a lot of good and we’ll go back to the drawing board on Tuesday.”

Hill, supplied a game-high 35 points, with an eye-popping 14 of 16 from the field including 7-for-8 from behind the arc.

He also won the highest-scoring average award for the tournament.

“He’s incredible,” Howlett. “When he gets locked in like that, he’s automatic. Not only he’s able to shoot 3s, he can also get to the rim. For as small as he is, he’s able to take a hit and still score at the rim. He’s only a freshman and he’s going to continue to get better throughout his four years here.”

Dalton Bolon supplied 16 points for the Hilltoppers while Eric Meininger netted 15 and also grabbed a game-high seven rebounds and dished out seven assists.

While the Hilltoppers hit 16 3-pointers, a new tournament record, they went 10 of 19 from the free-throw line, a place they struggled at the whole tournament.

“I don’t get mad at guys for missing free throws,” Howlett said. “It’s not like they go out there and try to miss free throws. I don’t read a lot of coaching books or anything, but I always try to read articles on what coaches say about shooting free throws in practice. Some coaches shoot free throws, some coaches don’t. We don’t really shoot free throws in practice. I think it’s all mental when you go up to the free-throw line. I’m not worried about that in the least. Our guys will make free throws in the region.”

For the Falcons, Hodges was solid from the field, going 10 of 15 for 22 points while Larenz Thurman netted 17 and Parks totaled 16.

“We want to thank Wheeling. We want to thank Oglebay and everybody at the Mountain East Conference for putting on one helluva tournament,” Koenig said. “The stuff off the court was really good and what an atmosphere. Unbelieable.”

Securing spots on the All-MEC Tournament team were Thurman, Hodges, Meininger and Hill along with Jair Rodgers (Concord), Tommy Bolte (Concord) and Vonte Montogmery (Fairmont State).

Bolte won the Heart and Hustle Award.

Vorhees won tournament MVP, just another accolade to his incredible college career. But he said the championship was the best of all.

“That’s my favorite accomplishment out of all of them that I have right now,” Vorhees said. “I’m at a loss for words. We knew that we could do it, it’s just you can’t predict this feeling. That’s the best feeling in the world… It’s awesome.”

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