GREENVILLE, SC – Entering Thursday’s first-round of the Southern Conference basketball championships with a mere five regular season wins, and with only three of those coming against conference opponents, things didn’t look very good for the sixth-seeded Western Carolina Catamounts.
However, after 40 minutes of basketball which saw the Cats put four players into double figures taking a largest lead of 19 only to have a second half run make things interesting, WCU advanced in the tournament by defeating The Citadel Bulldogs 67-57.
Head coach Steve Shurina, who picked up his sixth career win as a head coach and the first in the conference finale, was visibly happy with the outcome at the conclusion.
“We’ve gone through a lot this year,” said Shurina. “All these guys kept believing and have gotten better and better. I think our last four games were the best we’ve played.”
Junior Cory Largent led Western Carolina with 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor, which included 3-of-4 from behind the three-point arc. Joining Largent in double figures was senior Ricky Gandy, who tallied 12, and junior Willie Freeman and sophomore Kori Hatcher with 11 a piece. Hatcher added five assists and a pair of steals in the win.
WCU started out the game well, holding the Bulldogs scoreless for the first six minutes of the game, jumping out to the early 13-0 advantage. The Catamounts would push that advantage to 15 late in the first half off a made three-pointer by Casey Rogers. Western Carolina led 32-17 at the break.
The Cats ran their lead out to 19 at the 4:29 mark of the second stanza on a Gandy three-pointer.
However, The Citadel put together a 14-6 run starting at the 5:54 mark that spanned three and a half minutes, cutting the Cat advantage to two.
After five-straight missed lay-up opportunities by the Bulldogs, the Cats were able to again pull away for the win. WCU nailed nine of their final 10 free throw attempts down the stretch to ice the win.
The Catamounts managed 56 percent shooting from the field, including 64 percent (7-of-11) from behind the three-point arc.
Bulldog head coach Pat Dennis said, “I give a lot of credit to Western Carolina. We came out a little flat.”
Western Carolina advanced to face UNC Greensboro on Friday in the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament. Tip off is scheduled for 2:30pm.