Despite the Catamounts finishing 10-21 overall and earning a ninth seed in the Southern Conference Tournament this season, Catamount head coach Larry Hunter showed just why he is the 14th winningest active head coach in the NCAA with the way his team responded despite many different obstacles the team faced throughout the season.
Hunter, who has a career record of 543-282, did not allow his team to quit on their season no matter what the hardships and obstacles were that they faced throughout the year.
Five games into the season, and right before the team’s Southern Conference season opener sophomore against Elon on Nov. 27, it was announced that Nick Aldridge had left the program for conduct detrimental to the team. Aldridge was averaging 18.3 points per game, leading the team in scoring. Aldridge has since transferred to the University of Cincinnati, where he originally committed out of high school.
“They don’t need Nick Aldridge, they are better off without him,” said College of Charleston head coach Bobby Cremins after his Cougars barely escaped the Catamounts 86-84 in the Ramsey Center on Dec. 1st, which was the Cats’ second game without Aldridge in the lineup.
Without Aldridge, the Catamounts went on to lose 10 of their next 14 games but were able to give ACC powerhouse NC State a run for their money before falling 74-62 in the RBC Center on Dec. 29.
Sophomore Jake Robinson believed that Aldridge’s departure was a wake-up call for the entire team to step up and play to the best of their abilities.
“It was a situation where each player had to step up and accept their role. When he left, I felt like I needed to shoot the ball a little bit better and give the team a spark on the offensive end,” said Robinson right before the Catamounts took on the Furman Paladins on Canton/Clyde night on Jan. 10 in the Ramsey Center.
On Jan. 28, another devastating blow was delivered to Coach Hunter and the team when it was announced that freshmen Michael Porrini and Camden Miller had been dismissed from the program after the two chose not to accept indefinite suspensions.
“Camden Miller and Michael Porrini were suspended indefinitely on Friday and they have decided not to accept those suspensions. Consequentially, they are no longer a part of our basketball program,” said Coach Hunter in a statement released on Catamountsports.com.
Without Porrini and Miller on the team, it was back to the drawing board for Hunter, as the Catamounts were left with only eight players on their active roster.
After losing to Georgia Southern 69-58, the Cats lost at home to Appalachian State by only five (69-64), and upset North division leader Chattanooga 70-64. Hunter also coached his team to their first road victory, 73-65 over College of Charleston on Feb. 16.
“Larry (Hunter) has got his team’s chemistry together and got rid of those who weren’t buying in,” said Cremins after the loss to Western the second time around, “They don’t need anyone who refuses to buy into his system. Now, they’ve got a team that plays together and they have been playing good basketball.”
Even more startling news was delivered to Coach Hunter on Sunday Feb. 24, the day after the Catamounts avenged an earlier loss to the Citadel, defeating the Bulldogs by double figures 61-42. Sophomore standout Brandon Giles, who had scored in double figures in 18 consecutive games, was injured in a car accident and the Auburndale, Florida native would miss the team’s final four games, forcing Coach Hunter to go back to the drawing board with only seven players on the roster.
In the team’s senior night against Wofford on Feb. 28, the Catamounts honored seniors Negus McKenna, Eric Wilson, and Arnold Gore as they played their final home game of their careers for Western Carolina.
Without their leading scorer (Giles), and with only seven men on the roster, the Catamounts still managed to find a way to upend the Terriers 62-57. The victory over Wofford was the first time all season long that Western Carolina had won two consecutive games. It also gave them 10 wins on the season, and three victories in their last four outings.
Although they lost the final two road games of the year to Appalachian State and UNC-G, and sustained an early exit in the first round of the Southern Conference Tournament to Wofford, you have to be proud of what this team accomplished despite the obstacles.
Being depleted for much of the season and still being able to compete the way the Catamounts did this season in the Southern Conference shows the amount of heart, and toughness that the eight remaining players had and it proved just how good of a coach Larry Hunter really is.
Instead of giving up and just quitting when things got hard, the Catamounts kept fighting game in and game out and Coach Hunter deserves the credit for having his shorthanded team ready to play every night.
While he didn’t get the Southern Conference Coach of the Year award, you have to congratulate Coach Hunter for the job he did with this year’s team. While they didn’t win on the court, the eight remaining Catamounts are destined to be winners off the court in the game of life. And they have Coach Hunter to thank for it.