SoCon blitz taking over Asheville this weekend

Western Carolina students cheer on the Catamounts at the 2012 SoCon Tournament in Asheville. Photo from WCU Magazine.

The regular season has wrapped up for the men’s and women’s basketball teams of the Southern Conference and now will descend on a city that will be a four-day battleground looking to rise to SoCon glory.

The city is Asheville, N.C.  A berth to “The Dance” is at stake and 23 teams are hungry for more March basketball.  Slates are wiped clean.  The unexpected should be expected.

Every year in most conference tournaments around the country, a dark horse team moves up the ranks from the back of the pack and blindsides the higher-seeded teams.  The “wild card” team may change, but the scene stays the same.  Players from other teams are bewildered, fans are in a state of shock, and coaches are looking for the panic button.  The Southern Conference Tournament is no different, and people will be watching.

That is college postseason basketball.

The “dark horse” still remains to be seen but the two teams from Western Carolina are ready to assume that role and make some noise this weekend.  The margin for error is small, but the window of opportunity is anything but.  Both coaches know that, and are ready to take on Asheville.

“It is a great environment in Asheville.  It was a great tournament last year and we are looking forward to it this week,” Middleton said.  “You hear ‘Cinderella story’ all the time and we are ready to put that slipper on.”

 Hunnicutt a diamond in the rough

Western Carolina men and women’s head basketball coaches Larry Hunter and Karen Middleton look to prolong their respective teams’ seasons by making a run through the tournament.  Both programs had up and down shifts throughout the season, but neither coach is discouraged.

The two coaches were on hand at O’Malley’s Pub and Grill in Sylva for their final weekly luncheon of the season.  At the event, Hunter and Middleton talked about their first round tournament matchups and reflected on the finishes by their ball clubs.

“Our challenge has been from the offensive end of the floor.  We are on the verge of players finding that rhythm at the same time,” coach Middleton said.  “We’ve seen it in glimpses but we are working to get it to come together at once.”

Coach Middleton’s team provides the defense to win and gives up 59.7 points per game.  However, the team is 3-20 on the year in games that they score 60 points or less.  Middleton hopes that fifth-year senior Diamond Hunnicutt, who was on the 2009 SoCon Championship team, can continue to bring her leadership and defensive prowess on a nightly basis.

“She is our captain and sets an incredible example for our team,” Middleton said.  “We can put her on any perimeter scorer and know she is really going to lock them down.”

The Western Carolina Lady Catamounts (7-22, 5-15 SoCon) drew the ninth seed in the tournament and will face the eighth seed Georgia Southern Eagles (7-22, 6-14 SoCon) in the opening round of the tournament at 11:30 a.m. Friday in Kimmel Arena on the campus of UNC-Asheville.  The two teams split the regular season games but will see each other for the third straight year in the first round of the tournament.  The Lady Catamounts have won both previous meetings.

But Hunnicutt knows that nothing is set in stone come tournament time.

“I always tell my teammates that (the tournament) is anybody’s game.  We have to go in with the mindset that we are going to win,” Hunnicutt said at the luncheon.  “(As a lower seed) the pressure is not on us, it’s on everybody else.”

Middleton knows that contributions from her younger players are in order.

This season, Hunnicutt has taken freshman guard Lindsay Simpson under her wing and got her used to the physicality of college basketball by guarding her in practice.  Simpson has played in all 29 games this season and has started 13 of the last 14 games.  A native of Franklin, N.C., Simpson leads the team with 7.2 points per game, posting eight double-digit scoring efforts including four straight.

She scored a career-high 25 points, the most points by a Catamounts women’s player since 2009, in a 88-83 triple overtime victory over Furman on Jan. 23.  Simpson was named to the SoCon All-Freshman Team on March 6 by the league’s coaches and the SoCon Sports Media Association (SCSMA).

Young guns crucial to provide fire power

The men’s basketball team opens tournament action in the last game on Friday night.  The sixth seeded Catamounts will square off against No. 11 seed The Citadel Bulldogs (8-21, 5-13 SoCon) at 8:30 p.m. in the U.S. Cellular Center.  Western Carolina (13-18, 9-9 SoCon) beat the Bulldogs in the opening round of last year’s tournament 68-56.  The Catamounts also handed The Citadel a 72-55 regular season loss on Jan. 5.

The men’s team, which does not feature a senior on the roster, is led by junior guard Trey Sumler with a team-high 19.1 points per game in conference play.  He was selected First Team All-Southern Conference from the league’s coaches and SCSMA on March 5.

Sumler, who sat out Saturday’s season finale due to a coaches’ decision in a 56-54 overtime victory against Samford, will try to lead his team back to the Southern Conference Championship for the second-straight year.  Coach Hunter is looking for his young guys to step up and take pressure off of Sumler in order to make that happen.

Freshman guard Rhett Harrelson made his first collegiate start against Samford and saw 42 minutes of action.  He contributed a career-high three assists and notched two steals while only committing one turnover.  Hunter was proud of the way Harrelson responded to his extended role.

“Rhett has a lot of moxy,” Hunter said.  “He has a little toughness.”  Playing against Trey (Sumler) all year long has really helped him.”

Fellow classmate Mike Brown has also given his team a boost with his hustle and competitiveness on both ends of the floor.  Brown hit the game-winning shot in overtime against Samford to give the Catamounts the win.  The Charlotte, N.C. native is still trying to find a groove offensively but his hard-nosed defensive poise has made him quite the player down the stretch.

Junior guard Brandon Boggs, who moved out of the starting lineup to become the sixth man for the Catamounts the last three games, has posted two 20-point performances in that stretch.  Boggs, along with his junior counterparts Tawaski King and Preston Ross, will be one of the key components in propelling Western to a deep tournament run.

Collectively the Catamounts can beat any team in the conference, but they have not been able to find that winning formula on a nightly basis.

“With my guys, I get a lot of inconsistency.  It’s been our nemesis all year,” Hunter said.

Whether guys have struggled on the floor or been in and out of the lineup, coach Hunter doesn’t give up on them.  He looks for players to fit in what he calls his “Dirty Rotten Sewer Rat Club.”

“To be in that club you have to bring special determination, toughness, and energy to the court and really compete,” Hunter said.  “There’s competing and then there’s dirty rotten sewer rat competing.”

While coach Hunter showed film from the game against Samford at the luncheon, he was pleased to say that Harrelson, Brown, and starting sophomore guard James Sinclair submitted applications.

No team has ever won four games in four days to be crowned Southern Conference champions.  Coach Hunter’s team almost did it last year, and look to settle unfinished business this time around.

Larry Hunter’s “sewer rat club” applicants are facing initiation this weekend and have everything to prove when it comes down to “crunch time.”

“We’ll see if they’re able to join the club this weekend.” Hunter said.