Executive Sports Editor
WEST LIBERTY — Ben Howlett said he expected his youthful West Liberty basketball squad would tested this weekend.
The Hilltoppers’ second-year coach was deadly accurate with his prediction. The Hilltoppes fell to talented and explosive Kutztown University, 107-97, before a nice-sized crowd in the MEC/PSAC Conference Crossover on Friday night.
The Golden Bears used a 41-point outburst by senior sensation Anthony Lee to hand the Hilltoppers a rare home loss. The 6-foot-2 guard was 10 of 15 from the floor and 16 of 17 from the free-throw line.
“Anthony Lee is a great player. We talked about him all week,” Howlett said. “A lot of our game prep focused on stopping him but he made some really tough shots and hurt us from the foul line, as well. They have a really good basketball team and he’s special.”
West Liberty, coming off a 26-4 campaign, entered the contest ranked No. 2 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches NCAA Division II Preseason Top 25 poll and No. 1 by Street & Smith. The Hilltoppers, however, are young, featuring a starting lineup with two freshmen and two sophomores.
Growing pains can be expected.
“We are going to have a lot of highs and lows this year. But we have a bright future,” Howlett said. “We are not going to change who we are. We are going to be an up-tempo and pressing team. We just need to play better (today).
“It would have been nice to go 2-0 this weekend but if we can split and go 1-1 that would be good as West Chester (today’s opponent) is a very good basketball team.
“We are not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We will get better and better.”
West Liberty got out of the gates quickly, scoring the game’s first 10 points while relying on its frenetic, pressuring style. The hosts, however, could not separate from the relentless Golden Bears. Lee netted 26 points to pull the visitors to within 52-50 at intermission.
Kutztown, winner of 21 of 28 starts last winter, was torrid from the floor in the second half, connecting on 60 percent of its shots. The visitors took their first lead at 59-57 and were never headed.
“We came out of the blocks really well. We were sharing the ball, getting great looks and the crowd was really into it. We had all the momentum but we just weren’t able to sustain it,” Howlett said. “I like our team and it’s exciting for me to play good teams like Kutztown and West Chester. They’re really well-coached teams who are going to win a lot of basketball games. We’re young but it’s games like this that will help us get better and better.”
Lee got double-digit scoring support from Ricky Hicks with 16 points, while Da’Quan Granberry and Josh Townsend added 11 and 10 lightings, respectively.
“I have lost my share of games to West Liberty. So this is a satisfying win,” Kutztown coach Bernie Driscoll said. “Anthony is a great player and had a tremendous night. We beat a very good team.”
West Liberty displayed superb offensive balance with five players in double figures.
Sophomore guard Dalton Bolon turned in a sharp double-double effort with 26 points and 10 rebounds while hard-working forward Eric Meininger tallied 23 points to with seven rebounds and four assists.
Sophomore guard Luke Dyer netted a career-high 15 points and freshman guard Will Yoakum added 14 points.
The game also marked the return of senior guard Brady Arnold after sitting out last season while fighting a successful battle against cancer. He was inserted into he game at the 16:45 mark of the first half and was greeted by a standing ovation. He garnered 10 points and four rebounds.
“It was great to get back with my teammates and the fans,” Arnold said. “It was really heartwarming the way the fans reacted. That standing ovation is something I’ll never forget.”
For the game, Kutztown shot 54 percent, meshing 31 of 57 attempts. West Liberty, meanwhile, connected on 32 of 73 floor attempts for 43.8 percent. The visitors made the most of the foul line, sinking 38 of 48 attempts.
The Golden Bears outrebounded the hosts, 44-37. The winners committed 20 turnovers, seven more than the Hilltoppers.
West Liberty faces another stern challenge today at 5 p.m. against West Chester. The Golden Rams advanced to the Atlantic Region semifinals a year ago and were picked No. 1 in the PSAC East’s preseason coaches’ poll.
Wheeling Jesuit 75
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Wheeling Jesuit fell to Gannon in its season-opening game Friday night at Shepherd’s Clarion Hotel Conference Challenge.
Sophomore Brendan Hoban’s led the Cardinals (0-1) with 23 points while Freshmen Franck Kamgain and Steve Cannady each scored in double-figures with 19 and 15 points, respectively.
Gannon (1-0) scored the game’s first four points, before the Cardinals mounted a big run to open up a 19-9 lead with 12:39 left in the first half. Wheeling Jesuit connected on 6 of 9 from the field during the run, including four three pointers. The Cards extended their lead to 30-15 over the next four minutes with a scoring stretch that was capped off with consecutive layups from Hoban.
The Golden Knights rallied back, out-scoring Wheeling Jesuit 18-2, to take a 33-32 lead with 1:48 left in the first half. Gannon held the Cardinals without a field goal and forced four turnovers during the six-minute run. Freshman guard Jay Gentry ended the drought with a three-pointer that reclaimed the lead at 35-33 with just over a minute remaining in the first half. Both teams traded free-throws in the final 60 seconds to send the game into halftime tied at 36-36.
Wheeling Jesuit held the lead for the first six minutes of the second half, including a 48-42 advantage with 15:42 left in the game. Gannon drew back within two points and converted a three-pointer at the 14-minute mark to gain its first lead of the second half at 52-51.
The Cardinals quickly went back ahead at 53-52, but Gannon would go on to out-score WJU 38-22 over the final 13 minutes of the game to deal Head Coach John Peckinpaugh’s Cardinals a season-opening loss.