Catamounts win in unfamiliar territory on Browns’ buzzer beater

Western Carolina freshman Mike Brown put up an off-balanced jumper that found its way through the net as time expired in overtime as the Catamounts defeated the Samford Bulldogs 56-54 Saturday afternoon in a Southern Conference matchup with postseason seeding on the line.

The Catamounts needed a win to avoid falling to the eighth seed to the tournament and keep Samford from attaining the last first-round bye.

With 3.4 seconds remaining in the overtime period, sophomore guard James Sinclair inbounded the ball from the left sideline and found Brown cutting toward the left wing.  The freshman took one dribble to his right, pump-faked, and managed to get off a contested shot that seemed to hit every part of the rim.  The ball stayed on the back iron as the clock hit zero but dropped through the net while Brown backpedaled to the opposite end of the floor.

Freshman teammate Rhett Harrelson, who got his first start of the season, pumped his fist emphatically as he watched the ball go through the rim and immediately ran and tackled Brown along with the rest of the team.  Catamount head coach Larry Hunter trusted his young guard to lift the team to a win.

“Coach called up the play and I was surprised because I really didn’t think it would be for me. But, he called it for me. He told me to catch the ball and attack,” Brown said in his post-game comments.  “I didn’t really see it go in, but I’m glad it did.”

The Catamounts were led by juniors Tawaski King and Brandon Boggs, who came off the bench for the third straight game, with 12 points apiece. Sinclair added another 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.  Brown finished with four points but made the two that gave Western the much needed home win.  He also pulled down seven rebounds.

Preseason All-SoCon guard Trey Sumler, who leads the team in scoring and second in the conference at 17.9 points per game, did not see the floor for Larry Hunter’s team for the first time in his 99-game career.

In a game that featured 16 ties and 12 lead changes, the two teams traded baskets throughout the first half.  Catamount junior forward Preston Ross, who finished with nine points on 4-of-7 shooting and six rebounds, posted a highlight play on his put-back dunk off a missed layup by Brown to tie the game at 19 with 5:57 to play in the opening session.  Samford would not fold.  With 1:57 left in the first half, Bulldogs guard Raijon Kelly hit a jumper that gave Samford a four-point lead, the largest for either team in the game.  The Bulldogs took a 26-25 lead into halftime.

Samford (11-20, 9-9 SoCon) could not find a basket from beyond the arc, tallying 1-of-13 in the first half and 2-of-18 for the game on 3-point attempts.

Coach Hunter, whose team concedes an average of 70.2 points per game, commended his players for a gritty defensive performance without the leadership of Sumler.

“I’m just really happy with the win. It was a hard fought ball game by both teams. I thought Samford competed very well as we knew that they would. I’m just really proud of our guys, especially without Trey out there,” said coach Hunter in his post-game comments. “I thought we were in control of the game; I thought what really won it for us was our defense.”

The second half was reminiscent of the first with neither team able to shake off their counterpart and extend a lead.  After a Ross steal, Harrelson shoveled a pass to Boggs heading toward the basket and sent in a tomahawk dunk that tied that game at 37 with 12:13 to play.  Samford guard Russell Wilson, who scored four points in 29 minutes of action, answered on the following possession with a layup to grab the lead.  At the 4:09 mark, Kelly’s jumper tied the game for the 14th time at 50.  Neither team would score the rest of the half to send the game into overtime.

At the end of regulation, Brown had a chance to give Western the victory.  Off a Sinclair missed 3-point attempt, Brown grabbed the rebound but hoisted up a quick shot that fell short.

The Bulldogs, who don’t have a senior on the roster, were led by freshman forward Tim Williams and sophomores Kelly and Tyler Hood.  The trio each tabbed 13 points on a combined 18-of-37 (48.6 percent) shooting with Williams pulling down 13 rebounds for his sixth double-double and Kelly chipping in four steals.  The rest of the team was a combined 6-of-20 (30 percent) from the floor, including a dud in the point’s column from sophomore guard Connor Miller on 0-of-10 shooting and 0-of-7 on 3-point attempts.

Western Carolina (13-18, 9-9 SoCon) lost its only overtime game of the season, falling to Elon on the road 73-80 on Feb. 16, before Saturday’s contest when into the extra session.  Coach Hunter now focuses his attention to the Southern Conference Tournament.

“We have Trey back and that’s going to be a plus for us,” coach Hunter said. (The tournament) is wide open. There are a lot of good teams, a lot of parody. So it’s going to a heck of a tournament and we’re looking forward to playing in it.”

The Catamounts open tournament play Friday at 8:30 p.m. as the sixth seed against No. 11 seed The Citadel at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville.

Western Carolina won its only conference meeting with The Citadel 72-55 back on Jan. 5 in Charleston, S.C.

The complete tournament schedule can be found here.