WHEELING - You can throw out the record books and style points usually aren't anything to talk about when West Liberty and Wheeling Jesuit renew their annual backyard brawl.
That certainly was the case again Saturday afternoon in the women's basketball duel at the packed Alma Grace McDonough Center when the favored Hilltoppers finally fought off the Cardinals, 69-65, in a game that virtually went down to the last possession.
Junior Hillary Southworth poured in 28 points while freshman point guard Liz Flowers scored 12, collected eight rebounds and six assists in lifting West Liberty to victory No. 11 in 16 games while improving their West Virginia Intercollegiate Conference mark to 9-3.
The youthful Cardinals, who started four freshmen and a sophomore against the Hilltoppers, continued to show some progress during a season that hasn't allowed for much success so far in the victory colum. Coach Debbie Buff's team stands 5-12 and 2-11 against league opponents.
''The girls in the locker room are disappointed but I told them that I have never been so proud of the them," Buff said. ''I thought we locked in and played a solid 40 minutes. West Liberty has a very good team with some great 3-point shooters and a good interior game. I thought we mixed up our defenses well and some of our players really stepped up."
''It was a typical Wheeling-West Liberty game. Very intense and the crowd was really into it," Hilltoppers coach Lynn Ullom said.
Although West Liberty's shot blockers swatted away nine shots including four by Emily Blevins and three by Meghan Wiseman, Ullom wasn't all that thrilled with the interior defense.
''We gave up a lot of baskets on the inside as well," he pointed out. ''Wheeling did a good job of isolating us and getting to the rim. They are young and talented and they are going to win some games at some point, Thankfully, it wasn't (Saturday).''
For West Liberty, the game had an all-too familiar tone on the scoreboard for Ullom's taste. The Hilltoppers jumped out to a double-digit lead on several occasions and then watched the Cardinals battle back and take the lead.
During the opening half when Southworth sored 10 points and Flowers buried a couple of 3-point shots, West Liberty went on top 21-11 at the 10-minute mark. The visitors still had a nine-point advantage at 23-14 after a slick turnaround shot by Wiseman.
Wheeling later closed the gap to 23-20 on sophomore Emily Robinson's triple. After Wiseman put the lead out to 25-20 by netting another inside basket, the Cardinals responded with seven points to go in front for the first time at 27-25 after Jamie Sobczak bruied a shot from behind the arc at the top of the circle.
Blevins countered with a 3 but Jaila Bryan swished a runner to send the Cardinals off the court in front 29-28.
''We have great stretches where we have been an efficient, quality basketball team," Ullom said. ''But we struggle immensely when we have leads. It is almost like the game halts and goes to a standstill. This is the eighth game this season where we have blown a double-digit lead.''
The second half started with the Hilltoppers regaining the lead. Flowers drove to the rim for a layup, igniting a 10-0 run that also included a Blevins runner and six straight points from Southworth, who had a huge second half with 18 points.
After Wheeling cut the deficit to 41-34, Brea Kamarac swished back-to-back 3s to give West Liberty its biggest edge at 47-34 with 12 minutes remaining.
Junior Taneka Lewis came off the bench to help trigger Wheeling Jesuit's second-half comeback. She scored 10 of her 13 points during the final 10 minutes as the Cardinals slowly whittled away at the deficit.
Fouled on a drive, Lewis's two free throws with 4:13 remaining pulled the hosts to within 61-58. The 5-foot-10 Southworth then took advantage of a mismatch inside, taking a pass and converting a conventional three-point play, hitting a shot and drawing a foul while being guarded by the shorter Robinson.
Flowers' drive and layin following another Wheeling turnover again gave the Hilltoppers an eight-point lead at 66-58 with less than three minutes remaining. Sobczak's triple cut the deficit to 66-61 and Lewis found Alex Anderson for a layup to again make it a three-point game with 2:03 left.
Flowers' dish to Southworth put West Liberty on top 68-63 while two foul shots by Sobcak got the Cardinals back within three. Wheeling had another opportunity to tie the score after a missed free throw but an errant pass ended up in West Liberty's hands and Blevins cashed the back end of the double bonus at the foul line with 15 seconds left sealing the victory.
Sobczak finished with 19 points, Lewis had 13 and Bryant added 10 for Wheeling Jesuit.
''Tameka had a nice second half of us," Buff said. ''We brought her off the bench this time because we have not had that high energy kid to bring into a game.."
Ullom, meanwhile is looking for someone else among the Hilltoppers to take a bit of the scoring load off Southworth.
''We can't rely on Hillary to get 30 points every night," he said. ''We have to have some diversity. Liz (Flowers) is doing fine at point guard. It's a learning curve for the best of players and she has a high talent level.
''She is learning while playing out of of her normal position. But she fills up the box score every night, averging over five rebounds a game and she is currently fourth in the league in assists.''