The Good, the Bad, and the SoCon Tourney

The Western Carolina men’s basketball team came into the Southern Conference Tournament in Charleston, South Carolina, with no momentum and a dreaded first-round match up against Elon, a team that swept WCU in the regular season. When Western left later in the week, at the hands of Appalachian State, they left with some shred of dignity as they were able to reverse their fortunes against the Phoenix. WCU came into the SoCon tourney on a five-game losing streak and having lost their two games this season against 10-seed Elon 74-65 and 77-64. Western’s last game of the regular season was the 74-65 loss against Elon so they came into the tournament with all hopes going against them. WCU would reverse those negative hopes and pull out a 69-65 victory. The first half turned out to be a back-and-forth affair with Elon taking the lead at 21-19. Western would battle back to edge ahead 31-30 on a Negus McKenna 3-pointer with just under two minutes left in the half. WCU would keep a 36-34 edge going into the locker rooms. The first ten minutes of the second half played out much like the first half as the game went back-and-forth. The Cats were down 46-44 when they went on a 10-0 run to take control of the game. The 54-46 lead with nine minutes to go would end up as the biggest lead of the game for the Catamounts. Elon wasn’t done though, and a Brett James lay-up ended the almost five-minute Elon scoring drought. Another Elon lay-up, this time by Chris Chalko, would cut the lead to four with eight minutes remaining. The Cats would push back and extend their lead to 60-52 with 4:23 left in the game. The Phoenix once again showed why they gave the Cats trouble all year as they used an 8-2 run to cut the lead to 62-60 with only 1:37 left in the game. Brandon Giles iced both of his free throws for the Cats to push the lead back to 64-60 with 1:19 left. An old-fashion three-point play by Giles would push the lead to seven and force the Phoenix to start fouling. Brian Waters nailed a 3-pointer for Elon with 23 seconds remaining to cut the lead back to four points, but Western was money at the free throw line. Nick Aldridge hit both his free throws to give WCU a 69-63 lead. Chalko would hit a jumper with one second left to give the final score of 69-65. Elon received good performances from James, Waters, and LeVonn Jordan. James finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 steals, while Waters put up 17 points. Jordan scored 11 points. Scott Grable pulled down 11 rebounds, but only finished with two points as he shot 0-4 from the field. Western was led in the effort by their First-team All-SoCon big man Aldridge. The All-Freshman squad member scored 20 points and pulled down 6 rebounds. Aldridge shot 8 of 12 from the charity stripe. Also contributing with a surprise effort for the Cats was McKenna. McKenna came off the bench and scored 18 points. McKenna hit four 3-pointers and pulled down seven rebounds. The win was Western’s first in a Southern Conference tournament since 2000-2001. The bad, unfortunately, came the next day against two-seed Appalachian State. The Mountaineers had also swept WCU in the regular season by the scores of 100-91 and 76-65. Western wouldn’t play the Mountaineers anywhere near that close in this game as they lost 78-59. Western came out in the first half with the momentum as they used a 5-0 run to take an early 10-5 lead just three and a half minutes into the game. WCU built their lead to 16-12 with a little less than 13 minutes to go in the half. The Mountaineers answered at that point as they went on an 11-0 run to go ahead 23-16. The Cats battled back to within two points using strong play from Aldridge, but ASU would once again have an answer. Six straight Mountaineer points pushed the lead to 31-23 with less than two minutes to go. A 3-pointer by Douglas McLaughlin-Williams sent the Cats into the locker room down 34-27 at the half. Western pulled back to within three points at 37-34 in the second half, but D.J. Thompson fourth 3-pointer of the game pushed App back ahead by six at 40-34. The Mountaineers kept pulling away as they led by 12 at the 15:30 mark, and 19 at the 10:57 mark. The Mountaineers would keep scoring and eventually win the game by 19 points at 78-59. The Mountaineers put four players in double figures as they would play 14 players in the game. The senior, Thompson, led the way as he scored 15 points. The bench contributed big with the three other double figure scorers. McLaughlin-Williams, Donte Minter, and Eduardo Bermudez all scoring double figures. McLaughlin-Williams had 12 points and 6 rebounds, while Minter finished with 11 points and 5 rebounds. Bermudez also finished with 11 points as he hit 6 of 6 from the free throw line. Western was a one-man show as Aldridge finished with 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals. The Cats would finish the season 11-20 overall and disprove most critics. The media picked Western to finish last in the SoCon North Division, but Western would instead finish third. The Southern Conference tourney victory over Elon is just another sign of how Coach Larry Hunter has the Cats on the right path. Another year of Hunter’s recruits should improve the Catamounts that much more as they only lose one senior, Kyle Greathouse.