Division II Preview: Livingstone, Fairmont State square off tonight
SALISBURY — Time to stop thinking of a great CIAA season, the euphoria of being in the Division II national playoffs and shaking hands wherever they go.
It’s time to play basketball.
The Livingstone Blue Bears (22-6), the fifth seed in the Atlantic Regional, take on Fairmont State (22-8) tonight in the nightcap of a four-game day at West Liberty (W. Va.).
The Blue Bears, the CIAA Southern Division champ, are in the national postseason for the first time in school history.
Fairmont State, which received an at-large bid, finished second in the WVIAC in both the regular season and tournament behind West Liberty. Fairmont State is making its sixth NCAA tournament appearance in school history. The Falcons last made it to the dance in 2010.
Livingstone coach James Stinson likens the Falcons to J.C. Smith and Bowie State.
“They do a great job of getting it up the floor, breaking you down off the dribble and either getting it to the basket or kicking it out for a three,” he said.
Livingstone will have its hands full with 6-foot-3 guard Isaac Thornton.
Thornton comes in with 2,085 career points. He has scored in double figures in 50 straight games and in all but seven of the 113 games he’s played as a Fairmont State Falcon.
Thornton is a two-time first team All-WVIAC selection and was the league’s Freshman of the Year in 2010. He leads Fairmont State in scoring (17.7 ppg), while being second in steals (1.6 spg) and third in rebounds (5.3 rpg) and assists (2.7 apg).
His 44-point performance against West Liberty was the most by a WVIAC player this season and the third-highest point total in NCAA Division II this year.
And if you put him on the line? Thornton is shooting 82.1 percent.
Stinson is also impressed with 5-11 point guard Malik Stith. He joined the team for his senior season after playing three years at St. John’s.
“He played some significant minutes for St. John’s,” Stinson noted.
Stith has been a steady presence for Fairmont State.
Stith is playing his best basketball, having scored in double figures in each of the last 10 games for FSU, including four games of 20-plus-points during that stretch. He is averaging 20.3 points during that span, which is up five points from his season average.
On the year he led the team in both assists (3.6 apg) and steals (2.0 spg).
Four players are averaging double figures and the Falcons have been led in scoring by six different players in games this season. Six different players have scored at least 20 points in a game.
Fairmont State’s most versatile players is junior Brendan Cooper. At 6-7, Cooper is third on the team in scoring (12.7), leads the team in rebounds (7.0) and is second on the team in assists (2.7). He led the team with five double-doubles this season.
Isaiah Hill, a 6-9 center, is averaging 12.3 points and 6.6 boards per game.
Chase Morgan is third in the WVIAC in three-point field goal percentage. The Falcons are 10-1 when the 5-11 gunner scores in double figures.
The key for Livingstone is not allowing a Fairmont halftime lead (the Falcons are 19-1 when leading) and forcing the Falcons into bad shots. They are 14-0 when shooting over 50 percent.
“We have to defend,” Stinson said. “We can’t afford to play a 90-point game, even though people say we can score. But if we’re not scoring, we have a problem. We have to keep the ballgame in the 70s to be effective.”
NOTES: Today’s noon game has No. 3 seed Indiana (Pa.) vs. No. 6 East Stroudsburg... The 2:30 p.m. game has No. 2 Winston-Salem State against No. 7 Slippery Rock. ... At 6, No. 8 Bowie State takes on homestanding West Liberty, the nation’s top-ranked team. ... If West Liberty and Livingstone win, they would meet on Sunday. ... Fairmont State had a 14-win turnaround this season. ... Mark Thomas leads the Blue Bears in points (18.0), assists (3.6) and steals (1.8). Thomas was a first team All-CIAA selection. ... Jody Hill adds 13.9 points for LC. He leads the team with 53 three-pointers this season. ... Livingstone has made 169 more trips to the free throw line than its opponents this season (six more attempts per game). The Blue Bears have made 133 more free throws than their opponents.