WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. — Dan Monteroso scored 29 of his game-high 31 points in the second half Saturday as No. 3 West Liberty handed No. 2-ranked Fairmont State its first loss of the season, 88-81 before an overflow crowd at the ASRC.
The 14th straight win for coach Jim Crutchfield’s surging Hilltoppers (21-1, 15-1) avenged their only loss of the season, an 86-81 heartbreaker on the Falcons’ (21-1, 15-1) home floor in early December, and pulled the Black and Gold into a tie with Fairmont for first place in the Mountain East Conference standings.
“I think everybody got their money’s worth tonight,” Crutchfield said. “We’re a much better basketball team than we were in December but so are they. There’s a reason they came in here undefeated and I’m really proud of the way our guys rose to the challenge.”
The Falcons used a 9-0 run late in the first half to take a 36-32 lead into the locker room at the break and pushed the margin up to six points on a few occasions in the early minutes of the second half before West Liberty began to find the range.
David Dennis knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Hilltoppers up 50-48 as the clock ticked under 14 minutes only to see Fairmont’s Vonte Montgomery knot the score at 50-50 with a putback hoop on the ensuing possession.
Monteroso struck back with a 3-point bomb that ignited one of West Liberty’s trademark scoring bursts. After Clay Guillozet drove to the hoop for a 55-50 WLU lead, Monteroso answered a Shammgod Wells basket with a spinning floater of his own and then sailed coast-to-coast for a layup after grabbing a defensive rebound.
Fairmont misfired again and Dennis made them pay with another bonus bomb, capping a 12-2 Hilltopper spurt over a 90-second span and forcing Falcon head coach Jerrod Calhoun into a timeout with his team suddenly trailing 62-52.
The visitors’ Jason Jolly hit a pair of 3-pointers to help the visitors battle their way back into the contest. Jolly’s 10-foot runner finished off a 16-4 Fairmont surge that put the Falcons on top 68-66 with just over 6 minutes to play.
West Liberty’s Devin Hoehn splashed home another 3-pointer for a 69-68 Hilltopper edge but Montgomery followed in his own miss to give Fairmont a 70-69 advantage heading into the final 5 minutes.
That’s when Monteroso took center stage.
The 6-foot-2 Hoehn ventured into the trees to pull down a clutch offensive rebound and whipped the ball back out to the wing where a wide-open Monteroso calmly dropped in the 3-pointer that put West Liberty ahead to stay.
The Falcons’ Thomas Wimbush missed a pair of free throws at the other end and Monteroso knocked down his third 3-pointer of the second half for a 75-70 Hilltopper lead with just over 4 minutes to play. After WLU came up with another defensive stop, the Black and Gold ran the shot clock down into single digits before Dennis threaded the needle on a perfect back door pass to Monteroso for a 77-70 lead with 3:31 to play.
Wimbush tried to keep the Falcons’ hopes alive with another 3-pointer but West Liberty once again ran off most of the shot clock to set up a dagger of a 3-pointer from Hoehn to all but clinch it. The Hilltoppers led by as many as 10 points in the final minute.
“I told the guys at halftime that we’ve been a pretty good second half team all year and I guess Dan took that to heart,” Crutchfield said with a smile. “I thought the game loosened up a little after halftime and we were able to get Dan some transition opportunities. Some of those were created by the team, but some he created himself.”
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After being held to 34 percent (12-of-35) shooting in the first half, West Liberty heated up to 57 percent (17-of-30) over the final 20 minutes. That included a sizzling 8-for-12 from behind the 3-point arc as WLU outscored the Falcons 56-45 after intermission.
“The two second-half runs were probably the story of the game,” Crutchfield said. “I thought we executed better offensively as the game went on and we had so many people step up. David hitting those big 3-pointers to help us get that 10-point lead early in the second half and then Devin hit a couple of huge shots for us down the stretch.”
Dennis backed Monteroso with 25 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists while Hoehn finished with 14 points.
Jolly paced Fairmont with 25 points while Wimbush had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Montgomery also hit double figures with 10 points while Matt Bingaya finished with 8 points and a dozen rebounds. The Falcons were held to just 37 percent (27-of-73) shooting on the night, one of their poorest shooting games of the season.
“They are so hard to guard,” Crutchfield said. “They have so many weapons. Their guards are really quick. They shoot the ball extremely well and they’re very strong on the boards. That’s a great win for us.”