Catamounts exit tournament with silver lining

Trey Sumler and the rest of the Catamounts shake hands with Charleston after the game. Photo by Jake Myers

The stage was set and purple and gold filled the U.S. Cellular Center as the Western Carolina Catamounts took the floor against the College of Charleston Cougars in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference Tournament Saturday night.

When the final horn sounded, the purple and gold seemed to slowly flicker and fade as the Cougars topped the Catamounts 78-70 in a game that lived up to the hype of a physical bout.

The Cougars couldn’t produce a knockout blow, but they undoubtedly took the split-decision.

College of Charleston scored the first seven points of the game as Western went scoreless for the first two minutes until Trey Sumler’s lay in at the 17:33 mark.  Behind Sumler and sophomore guard James Sinclair, the Catamounts were able to battle back and quiet the Charleston faithful with a 19-9 run in a 10-minute span capped by a Sinclair 3-pointer.  The Cougars would not go away and held a 31-28 lead at the break

The game looked to be heading down to the wire, but Charleston out-muscled the Catamounts down the stretch to take a 10-point advantage with 10:44 to play.  The Cougars commanded the game the rest of the way.

“We had a couple of lapses on the defensive end and they did a really good job of executing,” Sumler said after the game.  “No excuses.  They deserve all the credit.”

The Catamounts saw only three players post double-digit point totals on a team that took 71 shots.  Sumler scored a game-high 25 and Sinclair and junior forward Tawaski King put up 19 and 13 respectively.  A lack of balance hurt Western as the game progressed and only shot 38 percent on the night.

On the Charleston side, senior guard Andrew Lawrence found his way to 16 points on 12-of-14 from the free-throw line.  Anthony Thomas and Adjehi Baru both posted efficient totals on a combined 10-for-15 shooting.  Thomas scored 18 points and Baru complemented with a double-double of 14 points and 13 rebounds.

The difference in the final score came from the foul line as Charleston took 35 free throws to only 12 for the Catamounts.  The Cougars also shot 83 percent from the line making 29 of those attempts.

Western Carolina head coach Larry Hunter was proud of the way his guys continued to battle but the admiration for his team extended into the post-game locker room.

“Basketball dominates your life for so many months and all of a sudden it’s over,” Hunter said. “I love them.  We are going to have some seniors next year who are going to try very hard to win themselves and our institution a championship.”

The fight was lost for Western Carolina but the purple and gold won’t be in the SoCon shadow much longer.