West Lib comes back, advances

GOING UP — West Liberty’s Nate Allen goes in for a layup during an Atlantic Regional semifinal game against Virginia State Sunday at the Kovalchick Complex on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kyle Lutz)

INDIANA, Pa. — The West Liberty men’s team faced a little deja vu in the opening minutes of their Atlantic Regional Tournament semifinal matchup on Sunday.

Like with East Stroudsburg, the Hilltoppers got off to another slow start, but were able to grind it out and survived a 3-pointer with .8 remaining to secure a victory over Virginia State, 82-80 at the Kovalchick Complex on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The Hilltoppers will face off against Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Regional Tournament Championship on Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Lakers knocked off host IUP, 75-65 in the other semifinal matchup.

“We got off to another slow start, and it’s like I just told my assistant coaches, we should just start 15 minutes left in the first half down 9-2,” West Liberty (28-4) coach Ben Howlett said. “But again, the fight that we had to get back in the game and I think we were even down nine in the second half. A lot of teams would have folded. I thought we made an adjustment defensively that we hardly ever practice.

“We were actually pressing and going back to a zone. I think that zone threw off their offense a little bit, we got some stops, rebounds and started making shots on the other end.”

No shot was bigger than Eric Meininger’s 3-pointer with 16.1 seconds to go. The senior was 0 of 5 from behind the 3-point arc before cashing in to make it a two-possession game as the score read, 80-76.

“I’ve always been told to keep shooting no matter what,” Meininger said. “I just had the look and let it go. I’m just really proud of our guys who fought through adversity the whole game and I am at a loss for words right now. I’m so happy to be in the Sweet 16 and a shot to go to the Elite Eight.”

However, the Trojans (28-5) were able to respond quickly. A 3-pointer by Brandon Holley made it a one-point game with 10 seconds left.

Meininger was then fouled sending him to the line, where he cashed in on two free throws to put the score at 82-79.

On the next Trojans’ possession, Dalton Bolon smartly fouled Jalen Jackson with two seconds left so he didn’t have an attempt to tie the game.

“It worked in our favor. He was a little bit too close to shooting when we fouled,” Howlett said if the foul was planned. “We wanted to foul him towards the half court line, make him catch the ball going into the other direction, put pressure on the dribbler and foul at half court. We fouled him just a little bit later than I wanted to, but I’ll take it.”

Jackson missed his second attempt, and the ball went out of bounds in possession of Virginia State giving it one last attempt to make a game-winning shot with 0.8 seconds left.

Holley’s 3-point shot was no good as the Toppers went into the locker room with the victory.

“I thought we played well enough to win,” Virginia State coach Lonnie Blow Jr. said. “We had a few mistakes here and there, a few lapses. It’s tough after the season we had. It’s kind of a tough way to go out. We played well enough to win the game. I’m super proud of them because they deserve better.”

With 8:45 left in the game, the Trojans took a 71-63 lead after a Holley bucket. That’s when West Liberty started to make its run, thanks to their defensive zone adjustment.

The Hilltoppers went on a 10-0 spurt that was capped by a Meininger assist to Will Yoakum to put the score at 73-71 in favor of the Hilltoppers. It was West Liberty’s first lead of the contest.

“I think (Saturday’s) game is more of a style we would prefer. Two similar styles of play. (Sunday) was the polar opposite,” Howlett said. “I thought they obviously wanted to get the ball inside and score at the rim. And that was the game plan. Let’s get the ball inside where we’re not the biggest of teams and let’s see if we can score at the rim.

“I just thought it was a grind to come back and take the lead. It seemed like every time we cut it to four or six, they would come down and hit a 3-point or get an and-1. We would bobble a ball and they would pick it up and get a layup. We never really got over that hump until the four-minute mark in the second half and I think that zone had something to do with it. It really slowed down their offense, they didn’t go inside as much and shot some contested 3’s.”

The Trojans answered one final time and took the lead as Jalen Jackson hit a 3-pointer to put the score at 74-73 with 2:44 left.

Dalton Bolon answered with a bucket that put the Hilltoppers up for good.

Bolon led the way with a game-high 21 points while Yoakum netted 16 and Meininger supplied 14.

For the Trojans, Cedric Wiggins had 14 points while Jackson secured 13. Holley (12 points), Cyonte Melvin (11) and Armond Griebe (10) round out the double-digit scorers.