The Western Carolina University Catamounts defeated the Samford Bulldogs 67-64. With the win, WCU improves to 11-8 and remains undefeated in the Southern Conference, 2nd behind Chattanooga. With the loss, Samford falls to 7-13 and 1-4 in the SoCon.
There was a big crowd at the Ramsey Center packed with students and faculty as the Catamount nation looked to see if WCU could continue their undefeated streak within the conference. With the SoCon basketball championship just two months away, each conference game becomes even more critical.
Senior Josh Mendenhall tipped the ball off and senior Tawaski King recovered. The Ramsey Center started a new tradition where the crowd, which would normally sit down after the tip-off, remain standing, cheering, and clapping until the Catamounts scored their first point. The crowd remained standing until junior guard James Sinclair drove and converted a high layup.
The Catamounts started off with strong defense, pressuring the ball and creating traps which led to turnovers. WCU jumped to a quick 8-5 lead after an alley-oop from senior Trey Sumler to senior Brandon Boggs which sent the crowd to their feet. Referees were calling many fouls against WCU, prompting head coach Larry Hunter to give the referees a mouthful.
WCU seemed to control the pace of the game but the momentum switched when Hunter substituted for his second string. Samford took advantage of blown schemes, bad passes and played pressure defense themselves. They jumped ahead to take a 21-20 lead with seven minutes remaining. Tight defense lead to turnovers and WCU regained a 27-25 lead. With just seconds remaining in the first half, Samford made a 3-point shot to take a 33-30 lead into the half.
Sloppy defense and turnovers by Samford allowed WCU to regain the lead and with fifteen minutes remaining they took a 44-40 lead. Samford rebounded in the second half, playing strong defense and converting fast-break opportunities. WCU, however, made a run and went up 59-50 with 7:50 remaining. Samford, led by freshman Isaiah Williams, refused to go down and narrowed the gap to 64-64 with 2:39 left in the game.
With WCU up 66-64 with 31 seconds left, Sumler went to the line for a chance to make it a two possession game for Samford. Sumler missed both free throws. After Samford’s Rajon Kelly missed a 3-point field goal, WCU’s Kenneth Hall went to the line for a chance to put the game away. Hall missed both free throws. Mike Brown secured an offensive rebound but was fouled, sending him to the line.
With two blown chances to put the game away, Brown had a chance to extend the lead. Brown missed the first shot but made the second. With 2.1 seconds remaining, Samford’s Kelly missed the game-tying three point field goal and WCU won the game with a final score of 67-64.
When free throws were critical at the end of the game, both Sumler and Hall were not able to convert any. Brown made 1 of 2. Many SoCon tournament games will no doubt come down to who is able to sink free throws at the end of the game. This will surely be something Hunter will address in the coming weeks.
With the win, WCU moves to 11-8 and remains undefeated in the conference. Sinclair had a game high 15 points along with grabbing seven rebounds. Sumler scored 13 and dished out six assists.
WCU remains undefeated as they travel to Spartanburg to play Wofford on Monday, Jan. 20, and back to Cullowhee to host Davidson on Thursday, Jan. 23.