Western Carolina won their last three games, two on the road and none by more than eight points, to finish out the season in the top six teams and earn a bye in the first round on this weekend’s Southern Conference Tournament in Charleston, SC.
The Lady Cats (17-10, 9-9) tied their mark for most wins in a season since becoming a Division I program in 1981-82, the other 17-win season coming 19 years ago.
The regular season’s end saw Western topple SoCon frontrunner UNC-Greensboro last Saturday 69-67. It was the first win over the Lady Spartans (19-8, 14-4) in three years.
The tone was set early in the contest, as the Lady Catamounts scored 14 of the game’s first 20 points to take an eight-point edge five minutes into the game. The Lady Spartans kept the score close throughout, however, and drew within 2 at 21-19 after a Jessica Williams jump shot with 10:41 remaining in the opening half.
Western allowed UNCG no closer in the first half, however, and scored five straight points to close out the half with a 37-30 lead.
The Lady Cats kept the pressure up in the second half and extended the lead to nine at 45-36 when sophomore guard Yoneko Allen hit a three-pointer just over five minutes into the half.
UNCG then caught fire, as a three-point basket by Samika Foster capped a 20-8 run that gave the Lady Spartans a 56-53 lead with 8:18 remaining in the game. Western then battled back with six straight points of their own to retake the lead for good.
With under a minute to go in the game, Foster hit two free throws to tie the game at 67-67. Freshman guard Jennifer Gardner, named Southern Conference Player of the Week, then won the game by hitting a jumper with ten seconds remaining in the game to give the Lady Cats a 69-67 victory.
Gardner led all players with 20 points and ten rebounds, the only player to have a double-double in the contest. She sank six of 10 shots from the field and made all eight of her free throws.
Senior center Laura Echols added 11 points and six rebounds while Allen poured in 11 points of her own.
As a team, the Lady Cats made over 88 percent of their free throws and shot 40 percent from the three-point line.
Head coach Beth Dunkenberger believed the win helped the team for a variety of different reasons.
“It was a great win for us because Greensboro is the top team in the league,” she said. “But also because it was senior night, our last home game and we were playing for seeding in the (Southern Conference) tournament. That win meant we wouldn’t have to play in the first round.”
She felt her team played well enough on both sides of the court to win the game and felt they got the individual performance to put them over the edge.
“We did a great job of taking care of the ball and we did a pretty good job of rebounding,” she said. “Jennifer Gardner in particular stepped up. Teams have been zoning in on Laura Echols and it’s important for other players to step up.”
Last Tuesday, Western completed a season-sweep over mountain rival Appalachian State 69-61 in Boone, NC.
The game opened with a stalemate, as the teams stood tied 10-10 with just over ten minutes remaining in the first half. Western soon took control of the contest, however, and ended the half with a 21-6 run to lead 42-26 at intermission.
The second half was controlled by the Lady Catamounts, as Echols scored 12 of her game-high 18 points to shut down any ASU hopes to come back.
Echols added eight rebounds and two steals to go with her scoring total. Gardner led all players with 13 rebounds while adding 14 points, two steals and two assists. Meanwhile, freshman guard Melissa Ervin came off the bench to score 12 points in 20 minutes, ten of those points coming in the first half.
Dunkenberger was aware that her team would have to come prepared to complete the sweep over Appalachian.
“App’s been up and down all year,” she said. “We know they’re capable and have a very talented team. We knew we’d have to go in and play well, and, after we started slow, we took control and played really well.”
On the Saturday before, Western traveled to the College of Charleston and began their three-game winning streak, prevailing 77-72 on the strength of a late second-half surge.
The game featured ten ties and 16 lead changes, with no clear victor emerging until late in the second half.
Western opened a slim 16-12 lead when freshman forward Miranda Long put in a layup with 12:22 left in the opening half.
The Lady Chanticleers would go on a 13-5 run over the next five minutes, however, to open up a 25-21 lead. The teams battled back and forth from that point, and C of C retired to the locker room with a 42-41 edge.
The second half saw the home team emerge first, as Charleston took a 57-50 lead with 11:23 remaining in the contest. Western would then grab control of the game and dominate down the stretch, forming a 27-12 run over the next 11 minutes to take the lead at 77-69. A late three-pointer by Rachel King, who led the Lady Chanticleers with 18 points, was not enough as C of C fell by five.
Echols scored a game-high 25 points, 17 of which came in the final half, and grabbed eight rebounds to lead the Lady Catamounts on offense.
Gardner dumped in 15 points to go with a team-high nine rebounds. Meanwhile, Ervin added ten points on 4-of-6 shooting.
After their first round bye in this week’s conference tournament in Charleston, the Lady Catamounts will face Furman in their opening game on Friday. The teams split their season series, as the Lady Paladins took the first game in Greenville 72-47 and Western won the second in Cullowhee 66-58.
Dunkenberger knows that her team, especially seen by their three-game winning streak to end the season, will have the potential to see some success in the tourney.
“We have a tough matchup with Furman,” she said. “We split the season series, so we know we can beat them. The freshmen have had a whole year of experience and will need to use it because we start two and play four.”
“It’s time for us to all step up and see how far we can get with this thing,” she added.