CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the moment at least, Malik Stith's memories of his three seasons at St. John's of the Big East Conference have given way to more current concerns.
Instead of playing at Madison Square Garden amid college basketball's most glorious trappings, Stith is a point guard at Fairmont State University of the West Virginia Conference - light years removed from his former hoops home.
Nevertheless, the competition still matters.
"This was the most anticipated game we've played,'' he said Saturday night. "This game was highly anticipated.''
In a clash of two of the WVC's best teams, Stith and his Fairmont teammates delivered a figurative punch in the mouth early, building a 14-point lead midway through the first half, and defeated the University of Charleston 71-61 Saturday night at Eddie King Gym. A quiet crowd of about 400 attended.
Stith, who started for the Red Storm in his junior year, hit 7 of 11 from the floor for 14 points and handed out six assists, along with eight turnovers, as the Falcons (5-2) thoroughly outshot and outrebounded a UC team that, on paper, looks better than last year's Golden Eagles, who finished 18-4 for second place in the conference.
"This was a conference game,'' said the Hempstead, N.Y., native. "They were picked second, we were picked third. We came in here 4-2 and didn't want to leave 4-3.''
Shooting 62.5 percent in the game's first 20 minutes, Fairmont constructed a 44-27 halftime advantage and increased it to as much as 57-36 with 11:52 in the game. UC (5-2) rallied and, helped by a 12-point run late in the game, trimmed the deficit to 63-56 on Hayden Annett's 3-pointer with 4:22 left.
But Stith hit back-to-back baskets for a 67-56 edge, and Fairmont never threatened again.
Leading Fairmont was 6-3 senior guard Isaac Thornton, a Martinsburg grad, who scored 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting and collected 11 rebounds. Isaiah Hill, a 6-9 forward, added 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting and eight rebounds.
"We got punched in the mouth early,'' said UC coach Mark Downey, "and didn't respond to it. And I worried about that with this team. We've been pretty good when we get out in front of people, and we've been OK in nip-and-tuck games, but when we get behind, we haven't been very good.''