Young Cats finish last in Saint Mary’s Shamrock Office Solutions Classic

The Western Carolina men’s basketball team traveled west during the holiday break, but unfortunately, they came back winless. Competing in the Saint Mary’s Shamrock Office Solutions Classic, the young Cats were not able to win either of their two games. The Classic started with a match up between WCU and the tournament host, Saint Mary’s (7-8). Saint Mary’s beat Western down the stretch as they nailed 13 of 14 free throws in the last minute-and-a-half to expand a five-point lead into a 93-82 win. The first half was beautiful basketball for both teams as each squad shot 60 percent from the field, and the lead changed hands 11 times. The Gaels finally claimed control with 34 seconds left as Ian O’Leary hit a three-pointer and a lay-up to push Saint Mary’s ahead by nine points. Western big man Nick Aldridge hit a lay-up with five seconds left in the half to make the score 43-36 going into the locker rooms. Saint Mary’s came out rocking and rolling in the second half as they pushed their lead from seven to 10, and then to 18 at the 12:42 mark. The Cats would not go away as they went on a 14-5 run. The run, which was keyed by a Negus McKenna three-pointer, would cut the lead to nine points with 8:59 left in the game. Saint Mary’s pushed back, though, as they extended the lead up to 13 points with an O’Leary dunk at the 5:34 mark. The Catamount defense bowed up from that point on as they held the Gaels without a field goal over the last four minutes of the game. The Cats used a 14-6 run to cut the deficit to 80-75, but foul shots carried the Gaels to victory. Saint Mary’s was led by O’Leary who made big play after big play and finished the game with 20 points and nine rebounds. O’Leary only missed one field goal and one free throw as he shot six of seven from the field and the line, while also nailing both his three-point attempts. Wayne Hunter also had a big game as he had 21 points. Diamon Simpson and Todd Golden came off the bench to provide the Gaels with firepower. Simpson scored 17 and had five rebounds, while Golden finished with 13 points and five assists as he hit three three-pointers. For Western, the freshmen Aldridge and Jake Robinson played outstanding. Aldridge finished with 28 points and eight rebounds, while Robinson finished with 18 points as he finished with a perfect shooting night. Robinson shot six for six from the field, four for four from long-range, and two for two from the line. Juniors Negus McKenna and Antonio Russell also played well. McKenna came off the bench to finish with 11 points as he also didn’t miss a shot, going four for four from the field and three for three from long-range. Russell chipped in 10 points, but only shot three for 10 from the field and zero for three from long-range before fouling out. The second game of the Classic for Western pitted them against Rice (6-5) and possible first-round pick Morris Almond. Almond is the nation’s leading scorer, and he didn’t slow down against Western as he scored 36 points and led Rice to a come-from-behind win. The game started off in Western’s direction as they took an early 13-9 lead. Rice nailed two three-pointers and a jump shot to reverse the four-point lead just two minutes later. Robinson hit a three-pointer to cut the Rice lead to 20-18 with 7:42 left in the half, but Rice would hold WCU scoreless over the next five minutes to take a 12-point lead. Freshman Brandon Giles hit a lay-up with 2:25 remaining to break the drought, and WCU would score the final five points in the half using a Kyle Greathouse three-pointer and a Giles lay-up to cut the lead to 30-25 going into the half. The Cats burst out of the gates in the second half as they opened up with a 21-6 run. Russell was the catalyst as he had 11 of the 21 points, including a four-point play. The Cats would lead 46-36, but an Almond three-pointer cut the lead to seven. The Cats would be unable to get back the double-digit lead. Almond proved unstoppable down the stretch as he scored 13 straight points to tie the game at 55-55. Robinson nailed two free throws to put WCU ahead 59-57 with only 1:07 left, but the Cats just could not hold onto the lead. Almond nailed a three-pointer 12 seconds later to give Rice a one-point lead. Aldridge stepped up for Western and nailed a lay-up with 38 seconds left to put Western back ahead. Almond would be fouled shooting a three-pointer on the next possession and ended up hitting all three free throws to put Rice back ahead 63-61 with 27 seconds remaining. Aldridge went to the line for Western with seven seconds left, but only hit one of two free throws. Almond added two more free throws to the lead with six seconds left, and the final of 67-62 was accomplished when Chris Hagan drained two free throws with three seconds left. Rice’s whole team was basically Almond. Almond scored more than half his team’s points as he finished with 36 of the 67 total team points, and he also had six rebounds. Almond hit five three-pointers and nailed all 13 of his free throw attempts. For Western, the loss dropped them to 5-8 on the year. Aldridge led the way with 15 points, nine rebounds and three steals and saw his efforts rewarded with an All-Tournament team selection. Aldridge averaged 21.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and two steals over the two-game tourney. Giles stepped up for the Cats as he had 12 points off the bench. Russell didn’t shoot well once again, but did finish with 11 points and eight rebounds.