HIGH HOOPS

Basketball tournament produces ‘instant classic’

Although the WCU men’s basketball team might have lost in a thrilling double-overtime final in the Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville late on a Monday night back in February, the Catamounts won the hearts of a city.

Rallying behind a raucous purple-clad crowd at the U.S. Cellular Center, Western Carolina erased a 13-point deficit to top-seed Davidson to send the game into overtime, forcing a second OT period with clutch free-throw shooting before a final three-point attempt by WCU missed the mark with time expiring. After winning three straight tournament games over three days, the Catamounts were hoping for a win in the championship game and the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament that comes with it.

“I’ve been a college coach for 41 years now,” Coach Larry Hunter said after the game. “I told the guys in the locker room that I’ve never had a team spill their guts like that team did tonight. They gave me everything they had – we had breakdowns, but it wasn’t because of our heart.”

The four-day run in a tournament venue close to a large portion of WCU’s fan base, and about an hour from campus, attracted large, vocal crowds of Catamount supporters as the SoCon tourney returned to Asheville for the first time in 16 years. Helping whip folks into a frenzy were super-high-energy performances by WCU’s Purple Thunder drumline and dance team.

“We could toss out a thousand sports clichés about moral victories and such, but the fact is this team left everything on the court in the equivalent of four-and-a-half games in four days, and we couldn’t be prouder of them,” Jim Buchanan ’83 wrote in a column in the Asheville Citizen-Times. “It isn’t customary for people sporting WCU gear to be stopped on the street with words of praise about athletic teams from Cullowhee, but that was the rule, not the exception, come Tuesday morning. It was a loss on the scoreboard, but a win for the institution.”

Click here for a slide show of photographs from the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament.