By Chad Richards, Contributing Writer
Ben Howlett’s Hilltoppers will enter the first MEC Tournament under his tenure as the top seed by claiming the MEC regular season title with an impressive 25-2 overall and 20-2 conference record. This means that they have earned a bye and will not play until Friday at the earliest. It also means that rivals Wheeling Jesuit and Fairmont State and potential spoiler Concord are on the other side of the bracket, making a matchup with any of those schools possible in the Finals.
On West Liberty’s side of the bracket, they could face tough tests from West Virginia State, West Virginia Wesleyan, Shepherd and Charleston.
We will know who our first round opponent is on Wednesday night; however, the Trumpet went to press before the game was played. Our opponent is either No. 8 West Virginia State or No. 9 West Virginia Wesleyan (UPDATE – West Virginia State).
Pat Johnson-Agwu is a player to watch out for if West Liberty plays West Virginia State in that first matchup; he had 18 points in the road contest and 27 in the normally friendly confines of the ASRC.
Their next game would be a 6 p.m. semifinal matchup between Shepherd or the University of Charleston, teams whose season series both tell a similar story: a blowout home win for the Toppers and a harder fought win on the road after a cold first few minutes or first half.
The Rams scoring depth could be an uphill battle for West Liberty, with four players from Shepherd scoring at least double figures in both contests. Winston Burgess led the attack at the Butcher Center with 21 points and went 78 percent from the floor. Steffen Davis added 19 and Thomas Lang put in 18 more, though those numbers were overshadowed by Dan Monteroso’s 27, James Griffin’s 23 and Dalton Bolon’s 19 for a 99-80 win. Griffin also led the Toppers at home with 17 while Lang and Burgess also added 17 for Shepherd in the 115-78 Topper win.
West Liberty held a one-point lead over the University of Charleston in the road contest but had a strong second half for an 87-65 win. Monteroso’s 20 and Bolon’s 19 easily handled the Golden Eagles, who have the closest thing to home court advantage in this tournament, with Shaq Speights adding 16 points and Ke’Andre Gibson putting in 10 for Charleston.
If the Toppers make it all the way to Sunday’s championship game, they could face a diverse field of strong MEC teams for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and a chance to make a strong case to host the Atlantic Regionals.
The options include Glenville State, who rounds out the bottom of the tournament field, UVa-Wise with a 22 point per game Taiwo Badmus, a Concord team that almost got the Toppers at home thanks to Tommy Bolte’s 31 points per game average, along with Wheeling Jesuit and Fairmont State, the only two teams to take down the Toppers this year.
The first round of games kicked off at noon on Wednesday, with the Toppers opening play on Friday at 6 p.m.
Be sure to check hilltoppersports.com for coverage information and check out the Trumpet for continuing coverage of the basketball team as they chase a bid to South Dakota and a national title.
Photo Credit: Hilltoppersports.com