By Chad Richards, Contributing Writer
After three months and 25 games, the West Liberty men’s basketball team will end the regular season this week with a game on the road and a regular season finale this Saturday at home against a long-time rival.
The past week of the season was a crucial one for Ben Howlett’s Hilltoppers in determining the Mountain East Conference regular season champion and finalizing seeding for the upcoming MEC Tournament in Charleston.
Last week’s wins against West Virginia Wesleyan and Glenville State College have guaranteed West Liberty the 2017-18 MEC regular season title and the No. 1 seed at the tournament, with a 25-1 overall and 20-1 conference record.
In the preseason poll, West Liberty was picked to finish third behind Wheeling Jesuit and Fairmont State; both teams now trail the Toppers by at least three conference games. While the games this week have no bearing on those rankings or seed for the Toppers, it will allow them to sweep all but one of their season series this season.
The action kicked off this week on the road with a Wednesday night game against the Falcons of Notre Dame College. The Toppers won by a landslide with 112-68, with Dalton Bolon leading with 23 points.
This sets up the regular season finale with longtime rival Wheeling Jesuit at the ASRC on Saturday afternoon. While the Toppers will carry a 48-game home winning streak, a MEC regular season title, and a three conference game lead (Wheeling Jesuit sits at 21-5,16-4) into this weekend, it is best to throw the book out of the window because anything can happen in this rivalry game.
Last season, the series saw a combined six overtime periods and 776 points, four matches with each team winning two and a shocking end to the series last season as the Cardinals took the final match in the Atlantic Region Quarterfinals after a West Liberty bucket was ruled late.
The Toppers took the first game this season on the road against Wheeling Jesuit, 81-78, which is a feat they have not accomplished since the 2015 season. The Cardinals only led by as many as four in the first half, but could not get closer than two points from retaking the lead in the second half.
Freshman Bolon had a huge night for the Toppers, draining all six shots from 3-point range and leading the team with 19 total points. Dan Monteroso and James Griffin added 16 and 15 more points in the win. Jesuit’s Haywood Highsmith led all scorers with 22 points and had 10 rebounds for a double-double. Pat Moseh added 17 points with two other players scoring double figures.
With the MEC Tournament decided for the Toppers, this game is less about conference standings and more about sweeping the season series with Wheeling Jesuit for the first time since the 2013-14 season; it is also about another important basketball tournament in March: the Atlantic Regional Tournament.
West Liberty currently sits at the top of the most recent Atlantic Regional Rankings, with Virginia State in a close second with a 19-3 overall and 18-3 region record. Wins this weekend could mean that the Hilltoppers could host their first Atlantic Regional Tournament since 2015.
WLU-TV 14 will provide live video coverage for this weekend’s rivalry matchup with recaps and previews for the rest of the season available in The Trumpet and on the Trumpet Online.
Photo Credit: Hilltoppersports.com