The Western Carolina women’s basketball squad will enter this week’s Southern Conference tournament winning five of their last seven conference match-ups, including the final three in a row.
This late-season surge has earned the Lady Cats (13-14, 7-11) a fifth seed, the highest for a WCU women’s team since the tournament was expanded to 10 teams, and a first-round bye.
Despite this wave of momentum, however, Western Carolina will have to face the number four-seed, Furman (18-9, 12-6) on their home court. The Lady Paladins won both regular season games this season against the Lady Catamounts.
The first contest occurred back in November, the conference opener for each team, in the Ramsey Center. The game was led nearly the entire way by the Lady Cats, but Furman managed to make a late run to force the game into overtime, where they eventually triumphed, 79-72.
Western held a seven-point half-time edge and led by as many as ten in the second stanza. The Lady Paladins eventually took a one-point lead in the final seconds and, despite junior forward Laura Echols hitting a free throw to even the game at 62 when time expired, managed to outscore the Lady Catamounts 17-10 in the extra period.
The second match-up in late January told a much different tale, as Furman dominated most of the game and won 78-61 in Timmons Arena, the site of this Friday’s tournament game.
This result put the Lady Cats at a 2-9 mark in conference play, ninth place in the SoCon and five games back of Furman. Since that game, however, WCU has put their surge together to catapult into fifth place in the conference.
Meanwhile, Furman has equaled the late-season Western surge, winning five of their last seven conference games to solidify their fourth place finish, two games behind UNC Greeensboro sitting in third place.
If the Lady Cats make it past Furman, they will face the winner between top-seeded Chattanooga (21-6, 15,3) and the winner of the first-round match-up of Wofford (10-17, 6-12) and Davidson (9-18, 4-14), the eighth and ninth seeds respectively.
At the end of the season, Western Carolina finished fifth place in the Southern Conference, a far cry above the ninth-place finish predicted for them at the beginning of the season. Head coach Beth Dunkenberger has managed to earn the Lady Cats a strong conference finish, and the best record of a first-year WCU head coach, in her first season at the helm.
She has received help from a strong front court this season, anchored by Echols and freshman forward Tiffany Hamm. Echols ended the season as the conference’s leading scorer, putting up 17.9 point per game. Her tally of 7.0 rebounds per game was also good enough to finish fifth in the conference, while both totals led the team.
Meanwhile, Hamm wrapped up the year scoring 12.3 points a contest and grabbing 5.9 boards. These marks put her ninth and twelfth in the Southern Conference, respectively. For these individual accomplishments, Hamm was named to the Southern Conference All-Freshmen Team.
Senior guard April Fleck was the only other Lady Cat to average double figures in scoring, notching 11.2 points per game and finishing thirteenth in the conference. At the same time, Fleck stole 2.42 steals per game, finishing fifth in the conference.
Sophomore point guard Christy Blackwell steadied the offense throughout the year, finishing second in the SoCon standings with 4.81 assists per game. She also led the Lady Catamount defense with 3.26 steals per game, third best in the league.