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West Liberty men knock off No. 25 Charleston, 89-79

WEST LIBERTY — West Liberty men’s basketball coach Ben Howlett doesn’t like to think one game is bigger than another. However, when it came to Sunday’s matchup against Charleston, it was a different thought process. Not only was it part of the NCAA Division II Showcase, the 20th-ranked Hilltoppers took the stage with a one-game lead in the Mountain East Conference standings over the No. 25 Golden Eagles.

West Liberty shined bright as it avenged a loss earlier this season to Charleston and captured an 89-79 victory at the ASRC.

“I told them that,” Howlett said about Sunday’s game. “As much as I don’t like doing that, I told them, ‘Listen, guys. This is a big game. This will give us a two-game cushion in the league. And No. 2, it’s going to mean something as far as regional rankings.’ They knew how big of a game it was, I kept beating it down to them. As soon we lost to (West Virginia) State, I beat it into their brains. I said, ‘Listen, fellas. This isn’t just an ordinary game. This is going to be a tough game and has a lot of meaning to it.'”

And the big game lived up to its billing.

The Golden Eagles took their first lead at the 13:19 mark in the first half after a conventional 3-point play by Seth O’Neal as the score read 17-16. The lead blossomed to four, but the Hilltoppers were able to take the lead back and would not relinquish it as West Liberty scored six unanswered points over the next minute.

“First off, I thought it was a really high-quality basketball game between two good Mountain East Conference teams,” Howlett said. “Obviously fighting for the top spot. I think we put a huge emphasis on our pressure defense. That was a team we had a hard time turning over the first time we played them. I’m really proud of our guys’ effort. I think they just they gave it everything they had. Maximum effort. It was fun to be a part of this game as a coach. I couldn’t imagine as a player to play in this game. The atmosphere was electric. I thought it really gave our guys a boost, especially late in the second half.

The atmosphere definitely picked up in the second half. After a Will Yoakum bucket with 11:48 left in the game, the score showed a 60-47 favor for West Liberty.

Charleston, though, rattled off the 13 of the next 17 points to get within four.

However, West Liberty went on a final run (14-6) to put the game on ice. And the final couple possessions of their run were in true Hilltoppers fashion. Luke Dyer was hit a jumper to make it 75-66 with 4:43 remaining. After a 30-second timeout by West Liberty, Yoakum secured a steal and dished it to Malik McKinney. McKinney’s layup was true as the Hilltoppers went back up by double figures.

On the inbounds pass, Pat Robinson III stripped the ball from O’Neal’s possession, where it landed in Yoakum’s hands. In transition, Yoakum dished it to a wide open Robinson who buried a 3-pointer to give West Liberty its largest lead at 80-66 with 4:04 remaining.

“That team (Charleston) right there is going to be a tough out in the conference tournament and I think they’re going to make the NCAA Tournament,” Howlett said. “It was a quality win, but we don’t have time to dwell on this because we have to get ready for Glenville on (Wednesday).”

Robinson paced the Hilltoppers with 22 points while Yoakum netted 17. McKinney –who was playing in his first start of the season — chipped in 15 and Dalton Bolon supplied a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

Drew Rackley tallied a team-high 33 points for the Golden Eagles while Lamont McManus contributed 18. O’Neal supplied 10 points.

NOTES: During Sunday’s press conference, Howlett stated that Preston Boswell, who started 21 games for the Hilltoppers this season, is no longer with the team.

“Preston has decided it’s in his best interest to not play basketball anymore,” Howlett said.

“We certainly support that decision and we wished him the best of luck and said, ‘If you need anything from us as far as the coaching staff or team, we’ll be able to help you out.’ But, obviously, we want them to be happy and he’s no longer part of our team.”

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