West Lib still unbeaten, but barely
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Liberty remains the king of the new Mountain East Conference - and NCAA Division II in general - but the Hilltoppers had to fight to stay atop the mountain.
Ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II, the Hilltoppers had to erase a 13-point deficit against neighboring rival Wheeling Jesuit Thursday night, eventually winning 93-89 in overtime.
That should preserve the Hilltoppers' place atop the National Association of Basketball Coaches poll. Entering the week, they had 14 of the 15 first-place votes, with Florida Southern getting the other one.
West Liberty (15-0, 11-0) continued its dominance in that poll with 34 straight times in the top five - the longest streak in nearly 50 years. This is the 27th time the Hilltoppers have been ranked No. 1 and the 60th consecutive time they have been in the top 50.
Besides West Lib and Florida Southern, three other ranked teams are undefeated - No. 4 Tarleton State (Texas), No. 6 East Stroudsburg (Pa.) and No. 12 California Baptist (15-0).
The Hilltoppers are likely to remain unbeaten today, as they travel to Urbana, Ohio, one of the three non-West Virginia conference foes. And the worst of the 12 MEC teams - the Blue Knights (0-11 MEC) are winless in the 15 games.
West Lib defeated Urbana 108-83 at home on Dec. 7. The teams will tip off at 3 p.m.
The University of Charleston owns a home win over Fairmont State, which it visits for a 4 p.m. contest today. The Golden Eagles are tied with Shepherd for second place, but both are three games behind West Liberty.
So it's all about positioning at this point, and it won't be easy for the Eagles. The next three opponents carry a combined league record of 25-7 - Fairmont (11-5, 6-4) today, Shepherd (13-4, 8-3) at home on Thursday and West Liberty on the road a week from today.
The Hilltoppers own an 89-76 win over UC, but the Eagles have beaten Fairmont 75-71. Both of those games were in Charleston in December.
UC (11-4, 8-3) is riding a six-game winning streak, including a 90-77 win Thursday over West Virginia State at Eddie King Gym. Before a festive crowd of 1,000, the Eagles took an 18-point lead and never let the Yellow Jackets get close.
Coach Dwaine Osborne said his Eagles are playing the best they have this season, but was a little more critical a day later.
"Looking back at it with a little more time, we turned the ball over too much, and that's uncharacteristic, at least to this point," he said. "That was a little frustrating. But I think our guys played hard, and that's pretty important."
West Virginia State coach Bryan Poore was in the Washington area recruiting, which isn't a bad idea. His Yellow Jackets (7-7, 4-7) need improvement, as any team does, and they were in the neighborhood. They play at Shepherd at 4 p.m. today.
The loss to UC stopped a 4-1 run which lifted the Jackets out of the league basement.
"I thought going into last night, we had been playing really well," Poore said. "We still had some spurts, but I didn't think we handled that big-game atmosphere very well. We lost our focus - we had good energy, but we didn't execute and didn't have great focus."
Another thing that could spur State, at least after the Shepherd game today: The Yellow Jackets won't have to play six straight on the road again. They will enjoy three of the next five at Fleming Hall, then play the last six at home, culminating with a March 1 bout with UC in the brand-new gym.
In the NAIA battles, WVU Tech welcomes Campbellsville (Ky.) to the Baisi Center for a 3 p.m. contest today. The Golden Bears (12-9) have won four games in a row, but will have to play well to reverse a 101-83 loss at Campbellsville on Dec. 19.
The highlight today: Tech will unveil the memorial portrait of Mike Barrett, the basketball star who played on the U.S. gold-medal team in the 1968 Olympics.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.