ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The No. 9-ranked West Liberty University men's basketball team survived a bizarre Eckerd comeback attempt by scoring 11 of the game's last 13 points Sunday afternoon and pulled away to an 85-75 victory at the Tritons' McArthur Center.
Coach Jim Crutchfield's Hilltoppers (10-1) - who led by as many 31 points in the first half - saw that margin nearly disappear beneath the weight of an incredibly lopsided foul disparity but held their composure down the stretch to close out their first semester schedule on a positive note.
The host Tritons (5-3) were completely overwhelmed by WLU's defensive pressure at the outset and West Liberty jetted out to a 16-0 lead just 3 minutes after the opening tip.
The margin hit 20 points at 29-9 on a Tim Hausfeld 3-pointer as the first-half clock ticked past the 10-minute mark and reached its apex at 43-12 on a steal by C.J. Hester with just under seven minutes remaining in the half.
West Liberty took a 50-25 lead into the locker room at intermission but had several players in foul trouble because of a 17-5 foul differential in the first 20 minutes.
The foul disparity quickly swelled to 23-5 as the Hilltoppers were whistled for six fouls - with a pair of technicals thrown in for good measure - in the first 2:30 of the second half.
With several WLU starters forced to the bench, Eckerd opened the half on a blurry-fast 17-4 run that cut the lead to 54-42 with 16:49 remaining.
The Tritons spent the rest of the half slowly whittling away at the deficit, finally cutting it to 74-73 on a rebound basket by Darrien Mack with 3:12 remaining.
That was where the Hilltoppers drew a line in the sand as Cedric Harris answered with a clutch jumper for a 76-73 advantage and Keene Cockburn got the ball back with a blocked shot and rebound at the other end.
With time running out on the shot clock, Alex Falk came up with the play of the game when he saved a loose ball from going out of bounds in the corner and threw it at the rim as he tumbled out of play.
The ball splashed cleanly through the twine for a 3-pointer as the shot clock buzzer sounded, giving the visitors a 79-73 lead with 1:33 to play. WLU went 6-for-6 from the line down the stretch to salt the game away.
Falk scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half to lead the Hilltoppers while Chris Morrow and Harris added 15 and 13 points, respectively. Hausfeld finished with nine points and a game-high six assists while Hester added eight points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Lance Kearse led Eckerd's comeback with 26 of his 27 points - including a 10 of 11 showing from the foul line - coming after intermission. Josh Snodgrass added 14 points off the bench while Walade Wade and Wayne Sears had 10 points each.
The West Liberty men will be idle until Jan. 4 when they return to the ASRC to play host to arch rival Wheeling Jesuit. Tip off has been moved up to 6 p.m. in order to avoid conflict with the Orange Bowl telecast later that night. The women's game will be played at 4 p.m.
Wheeling Jesuit takes on Bellarmine
WHEELING - The Wheeling Jesuit men's basketball team will play host to the defending NCAA Division II National Champions, Bellarmine University, at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Alma Grace McDonough Center.
Bellarmine comes enters the contest with an 8-1 record against Division II teams. The Knights started the season as the No. 1-ranked team in Division II, but an overtime loss at the University of Indianapolis has dropped them in the national standings to No. 5. The traditional powerhouse opened up their season with games against three perennial Division I heavy hitters - Duke, Louisville, and Xavier.
The Cardinals enter with a 6-3 record, 3-2 in the West Virginia Conference.