Western Carolina escapes ETSU in overtime, to face Wofford in semifinals

Sinclair throws down a break away dunk in the final minutes of regulation.  Photo by Todd Drexler

Sinclair throws down a break away dunk in the final minutes of regulation. Photo by Todd Drexler

Western Carolina needed overtime to slip past ETSU 67-61 in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference Men’s Basketball Championship last night in Asheville, but would not be denied a rematch with the team that has knocked them out of the tournament three of the last five seasons.

The Catamounts will take on top-seeded Wofford in the semifinals tonight in a rematch of the Southern Conference championship game a season ago. Wofford defeated the Catamounts 56-53.

It will be the fifth conference semifinal appearance for Larry Hunter’s squad in the past six seasons.

Western Carolina senior James Sinclair scored a game-high 30 points and recorded 14 rebounds along with a career-high six steals. It was his sixth double-double of the season and his sixth 30-point game of the season. Mike Brown recorded his third double-double of the season for the Catamounts, scoring 16 points and hauling in 10 rebounds.

Lester Wilson scored a team-high 17 points for ETSU and grabbed six rebounds. Rashawn Rembert totaled 14 points and four rebounds and A.J. Merriweather notched his fourth double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

Sinclair was the story of the first half, hitting 6-of-11 from the field and a perfect 7-of-7 from the free throw line on his way to 21 points at the break. Sinclair’s 19.1 points per game was second-best in the conference heading into yesterday’s action. He drew the defensive assignment of ETSU’s Jalen Riley – the conference’s leading scorer at 20.7 points per game.

Riley didn’t come close to that mark and finished with eight points on an abysmal 2-of-11 from the field.

“He’s been in a great mindset all year long. You can’t just turn it on in the conference tournament,” said Hunter. “He does so much on the court besides just score. He’s been a terrific leader with this team this year.”

ETSU head coach Murry Bartow offered some high praises for Sinclair as well.

“Sinclair was phenomenal,” said Bartow. “We came into the game knowing he was the best player on their team but he had 21 points before you could blink. He kind of had a Russell Westbrook type game.”

Western Carolina struggled out of the gate, going scoreless until a Sinclair jumper put the Catamounts on the board with 17:19 left in the first half. The first half changed after that. Over a five-minute span, Western would go on a 16-1 run, with Sinclair scoring 11 of those points, to take an 11-point lead.

The Buccaneers responded with an 11-4 run of their own, and the teams would trade baskets to close out the half as Western Carolina took a 35-27 lead into halftime.

Western Carolina continued to hold off ETSU in the second half. Mike Brown scored eight points on an 11-4 run to take a 46-36 advantage with 12:43 remaining. But the Catamounts would go cold and allowed ETSU to climb back into the game with a 13-4 run of their own. Western Carolina shot 26 percent in the second half.

With 1:27 remaining, Western held a 54-51 lead with ETSU on the attack. After a steal by Justin Browning, he pushed the ball ahead to Sinclair, who threw down an emphatic dunk that should have sealed the game.

Instead, Sinclair and Brown missed the front-end of one-and-one opportunities in the final minute, which led to a Riley 3-pointer and Lester jumper for ETSU. Sinclair had one final look at regulation, but the shot was off target and the game went into overtime notched at 56.

In the overtime frame, ETSU only hit one shot and Western converted all four of their free throws down the stretch to close out the Buccaneers.

Western Carolina will face Wofford tonight at 6 pm in the Southern Conference Championship Semifinals. The Terriers have given Western fits in tournament play, holding a 4-2 all-time record against the Catamounts. Western’s last tournament win against Wofford came in the 2012 quarterfinals