CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every championship has its own distinct meaning to those who are part of it, but West Liberty's third straight title Saturday afternoon at the 76th annual West Virginia Conference men's basketball tournament had a special feel.
The top-seeded Hilltoppers' trademark long ball wasn't much of a factor, but they did everything else right in taking a 92-78 victory over No. 2 Fairmont State in the last league championship game. A crowd of about 5,000 attended at the Charleston Civic Center.
West Liberty (30-1), which is ranked No. 1 nationally in NCAA Division II, earned an automatic berth to the Atlantic Regional and will most likely host the event in two weeks. Fairmont State (22-8) is also a good bet to receive an at-large bid to the regional tourney. The Hilltoppers beat the Falcons for the third time this season - 82-77 at home Jan. 17 and 103-99 away Feb. 16.
The WVC, which was formed in 1924, will cease to exist next year as longtime members Concord, Fairmont State, Glenville State, Shepherd, the University of Charleston, West Liberty, West Virginia State, Wheeling Jesuit and West Virginia Wesleyan depart to form the new 12-team Mountain East Conference. Notre Dame College, Urbana (Ohio) and Virginia-Wise will also be part of the new venture.
WVC schools not included in the new alignment include Alderson-Broaddus, Bluefield State, Davis & Elkins and Ohio Valley. Pennsylvania-based Pitt Johnstown and Seton Hill, which have been WVC members since 2007, have accepted invitations to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
The WVC men's tournament has been in Charleston for 52 of those 76 years, beginning at the end of the 1959-60 season. Before the Big East Conference expanded its tournament, the 16-team WVC tourney was the largest postseason hoops event at any level of the NCAA.
"When I was 8 years old, I remember my dad taking me to watch Morris Harvey play and introduced me to Sonny Moran and George King,'' said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, who worked as a tennis instructor for 15 years at The Players' Club in Charleston. "I was watching the conference then.
"When I was in junior high I remember listening to Fairmont State play in the NAIA national tournament. I have probably a deeper feel for the West Virginia Conference than the average guy, so it means a lot more to me.''
Not much separated West Liberty and Fairmont State in the opening half Saturday as the teams shot 55.9 percent and 50 percent, respectively. But the Hilltoppers clung to a 42-40 lead at halftime after allowing the Falcons to tally the final six points.
The Hilltoppers used a 10-0 run with 13:58 left in the second half to seize a 56-48 advantage and were never really threatened after that. The Falcons closed within six points just once the rest of the way as West Liberty knocked down 26 of 29 foul shots.
West Liberty senior forward Chris Morrow nailed a 3, the Hilltoppers' only one after the break, to start the surge as sophomore guard Shawn Dyer followed with back-to-back driving layups and senior guard Alex Falk, the tournament MVP and sportsmanship award winner, finished with a three-point play on a driving jump shot and free throw.
"I don't really think we changed anything [in the second half],'' said Falk, who netted a game-high 27 points on 7 of 14 shooting from the field and 13 of 15 at the charity stripe. "It's a game of longevity and that's the way we play, up-tempo for 40 minutes. Eventually it kind of wore on [Fairmont State] a little bit and their defense kind of stopped.''