Looking at the Western Carolina men’s basketball schedule at the beginning of the year, it was easy to see that the stretch of three non-conference games between December 2 and 16 just might be the toughest stretch of three games the Cats have all year. The Cats would have to travel on the road to Xavier, Gardner-Webb, and Dayton, plus deal with 7 day lay-offs between each game. In the end, those three games may have just proved the earlier point as the young Catamounts dropped all three. The Cats started off the trip with the top-25 caliber Xavier Musketeers (6-1). The Musketeers dominated Western as most expected. How they did it was a little unexpected as the Musketeers perimeter standouts took a backseat to a tough inside game. Xavier out rebounded the Cats 51-26 and forced the Catamounts into 8 of 31 shooting from behind the arc. WCU got out to a 5-3 lead as former Mr. Basketball of Ohio, Kyle Greathouse, had a lay up and hit a three-pointer to put WCU ahead in the early-going. Xavier took the lead back as the second-place finisher to Greathouse in high school. Drew Lavender hit a jumper inside, and Justin Doellman made two free throws to put Xavier back ahead for the rest of the game at 7-5. The closest the Cats would get for the rest of the game was six points at 17-11. The Musketeers answered that close call with a 10-1 run. Eventually, Xavier would end the half on a 14-6 run and the Cats would head into the half down 17 points. Things didn’t get any better in the second half as the Cats’ hopes of a comeback were snuffed out early. The Musketeers started off the second half with a 16-6 run to push the lead to 27. Xavier would end up winning the game by 34 points, 95-61. The Cats had only two performers in double digits as the upperclassmen were the only ones who seemed unshaken by playing the talented Musketeers. Last year’s leading scorer junior Antonio Russell finished the game with 20 points as he shot 3 for 6 from long-range. In his rematch with Lavender, the senior Greathouse finished with 10 points but shot 2 for 8 from behind the arc. For Xavier it all started inside. Forwards Justin Doellman, Justin Cage, and Josh Duncan played outstanding games. Doellman finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds, while Cage finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Duncan scored 11 points. Johnny Wolf came of the bench for Xavier to chip in 11 points and 7 assists as he hit three 3-pointers. In the Mr. Ohio rematch, tiny 5’7″ Drew Lavender got the upper hand as he finished the game with 5 points, 6 assists, and more importantly, got the win. Seven days later, the Cats got back onto the court this time in Boiling Springs, NC. The Cats’ game against Gardner-Webb (2-6) should have been a very winnable game, and the Cats gave a glimpse of that before blowing a 17-point halftime lead and losing the game in overtime. The Bulldogs nailed eight 3-pointers after halftime to beat the Catamounts in overtime for the second consecutive year. The Bulldogs also tightened up on defense in the second half as they held Western to only two baskets in the final 11 minutes of the second half. The Cats started the game off rough as Gardner-Webb jumped out to a 6-2 lead. The Cats tightened the screws on defense, though, and held the Bulldogs scoreless for seven minutes in the first half and built a 21-point lead. The Bulldogs cut it to 17 by halftime, but it looked like Western’s game to lose. Lose they did as the Bulldogs cut Western’s lead to 13 at the beginning of the second half. After pushing the lead back to 16, the Cats let Gardner-Webb go on a 14-2 run to get right back in the game. The Cats once again repelled the Bulldogs as Russell and freshman Brigham Waginger both hit jumpers to push the lead back up to 9 with 11:04 remaining. A Russell dunk would be the only basket for the Cats in the rest of regulation. The Bulldogs’ tough defense got them right back into the game as they were down by six with 5:04 remaining. At that point, Ricky McPhee of Gardner-Webb nailed two 3-pointers in a row to tie the game. Western held off the Bulldogs again, this time with free throws by Russell; with 35 seconds left and only a three-point lead, the Cats couldn’t fend off the Bulldogs when it mattered as Chris Gash nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer to send it into overtime. In overtime the Bulldogs used a jump shot by Samba Fall and a 3-pointer from Takayo Siddle to jump out to a 5-point lead. The Cats would shutdown the Bulldogs from that point on but could not make up the five-point deficit and lost 74-73. For Gardner-Webb, last-second hero Chris Gash finished the game with 18 points as he hit three 3-pointers. Siddle also had 10 points, while Thomas Sanders came off the bench to score 11 points and pull down 5 rebounds. The Cats were led in the losing effort by Russell who scored 30 points and pulled down 8 rebounds. In the end, though, Russell finished with 7 turnovers, and his only missed free throw left the Catamount lead at three points and enabled Gash to tie the game with his last-second shot. Freshman Nick Aldridge finished with 16 points, but the Catamounts as a whole let a very winnable game slip right through their grasp. After the disappointing slip-up, the Cats traveled to Dayton, Ohio, seven days later to face a very good Dayton Flyers team (9-1). The Cats started off hot as they raced out to a 15-8 lead 10 minutes into the game. From that point, the Flyers tightened the clamps defensively as they held WCU scoreless for six straight minutes and went on a 14-0 run to make the game 22-15. The Flyers pushed their lead to 11 in the final minute of the first half, but two free throws by Jake Robinson cut the score to 33-24. The Cats surged back in the second half as they started off with a 7-3 spurt to cut the lead to three. Once again, Dayton shut the Cats down offensively, this time for five minutes. The Flyers would only push their lead to 11, but the Cats would never get any closer than 7 points the rest of the way and ended up losing 66-55 for the third loss in a row. Dayton was led by guard Brian Roberts. Roberts finished the night with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. Roberts hit four 3-pointers and shot five of six from the charity stripe. Dayton’s other starting guard, Marcus Johnson, also played well. Johnson scored 13 points and finished with 6 rebounds. Norman Plummer came off the bench for the Flyers to score 15 points on 7 of 7 shooting from the free throw line and pulled down 5 rebounds. For the Catamounts, junior college-transfer Arnold Gore was the leading scorer in his first game in a Western uniform. The rugged 6’6″ Gore scored 15 points and finished with 5 rebounds. Greathouse was the only other Catamount performer in double figures as he had 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting from long-distance. The Cats fell to 4-4 with the loss.