Upstart Western Carolina To Face Davidson in rematch of ’96 Title Bout
NO. 3 NORTH DIVISION WESTERN CAROLINA (17-17, 8-10) vs No. 1 SOUTH DIVISION DAVIDSON (24-7, 16-2)
In what was one of the greatest Cinderella stories in Southern Conference basketball history, the 1995-96 season saw the ultimate David vs. Goliath championship matchup, as an unbeaten Davidson team faced an upstart Western Carolina in the first venue to host the Southern Conference title game after the previous run in Asheville.
Adding to the magic of that evening for Western Carolina was head coach Phil Hopkins' promise to his team should the Catamounts win the game. The promise--propose to his girlfriend, which he did of course upon the cutting down of the nets by WCU, and she followed the theme of what was a perfect evening all-around for Catamount nation by saying "yes."
On that afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum, however, it was Western Carolina, who represented “David” in the scenario and it would be a Catamount team that would produce one of the greatest championship game upsets in Southern Conference history, prevailing by an improbable 69-60 score-line in what was a defensive battle between two offensive-minded clubs.
It remains the Catamounts’ lone Southern Conference Basketball title in school history since joining the league as an official member in 1976-77.
In the 1995-96 season, Western Carolina was a team that had seen its share of ups and downs, as the Catamounts, who were in the last championship played at the pre-renovated Asheville Civic Center, once suffered through a seven-game losing skid during that campaign some 16 seasons ago.
The losing streak included a surprising 60-58 home loss to Division II Coker College at the Ramsey Center.
The Catamounts had lost a big scorer from the previous season in Frankie King, who was a late-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers. King, along with another of the greatest players to ever suit in the Purple and Gold, Anquell McCollum (26.3 PPG led nation in 1995-96), were a prized backcourt seemingly poised to lead the Catamounts to a title in 1995.
However, the Catamounts let what looked to be a sure SoCon title and subsequent trip to the NCAA Tournament slip away in the waning moments, as the experienced Chattanooga Mocs under the direction of Mack McCarthy, would ultimately gain the crown with a (63-61) win over the Catamounts, breaking the hearts of many who made the short trek from Cullowhee.
That loss to the Mocs was 17 years ago to the day, and remains one of the most heartbreaking moments in the school’s basketball history to Catamount fans. To many, the scoring and versatility of that 1994-95 team were ingredients that hadn’t been seen in WCU basketball since the early-mid 1980’s.
In what many considered to be a weak Southern Conference in 1995-96, the Catamounts, who were then Southern Conference South Division members, garnered the first-round bye for the league’s post-season tournament by finishing second in the SoCon South, with a 7-7 overall league mark, and posted just a 14-13 regular-season record.
The Catamounts would dispatch mountain rival Appalachian State (74-66) in the Quarterfinal round before using 42 points from the nation’s leading scorer McCollum to power past the high-octane, fast-break style offense of Bart Bellairs’ VMI team (97-93).
Memories of that 1995-96 WCU team won’t be too far removed from the current Catamount edition, as McCollum is now an assistant coach on Larry Hunter’s current staff.
That set up what many thought would be a mismatch in the title game, as the Wildcats had strolled into the title game.
Davidson had gotten past East Tennessee State (67-43) and Marshall (92-77) in the semifinals, which was not all that unexpected from a team that had beaten its SoCon foes by a whopping total of 16.6 PPG during the regular-season league slate.
It might be even more of a David vs. Goliath matchup on Monday night, as the Catamounts have come from finishing third-place in the North Division to the SoCon title game. The Catamounts will carry a .500 record (17-17) into the title game on Monday night.
In the 1995-96 season, the Catamounts played Davidson only once during the regular season, dropping a 98-85 decision at the Ramsey Center on Feb. 3. The two teams have now swapped divisions, with the Catamounts now members of the SoCon North, while the Wildcats are now members of the SoCon South.
In that 1995-96 title game, it was unlikely heroes and a stout defense of the normally proficient shooting Davidson shooters that powered the Catamounts to the school’s greatest athletic achievement.
The Wildcats, who marched into that title game with a 25-3 mark, were limited to a meager 32.9% shooting percentage—a season low by the Catamounts in the nine-point loss. Western was also stingy from beyond the arc, holding one of the nation’s top three-point shooting clubs to 3-for-24 shooting from long-range in the victory.
McCollum scored a season-low 13 points, which made the title win by the Catamounts even more remarkable. It was performances from role players like Kevin Kullum (12 points, 10 boards), Hartsville, S.C., native Jarvis Graham (11 pts., 5-of-9 from the field in upset win over Davidson in '96) and center Kerry Wright (8 points, 9 boards, 3 blocks)
The Catamounts themselves shot the ball at just 36.0% clip in the contest, but dominated the physical Wildcat front court, which consisted of the likes of Quinn Harwood, Brandon Williams and Narcisse Ewodo, out-rebounding the Wildcats, 51-39.
However, a win by the Catamounts this season, would top even that magical run of 16 years ago, as the Catamounts look to establish a first in the nation’s oldest post-season tournament—become the first team to go from the proverbial “play-in” round to a championship title win.
Furman made it all the way to the title game in 2002 having started its tourney run on Thursday, but then ran into Davidson.
Elon met the same fate in 2008, starting the tournament with a convincing win over Furman in the play-in round, before meeting its match in the title game, which was once again against a talented Davidson team.
The latest team to try to complete the four-game sweep was College of Charleston in 2009, which completed an upset win over the Stephen Curry-led and favored Wildcats in the semifinals (59-52) before eventually losing the title game to the Chattanooga Mocs (80-69) in what was a packed “Roundhouse.”
The Cougars eventually followed the same path in the title game as its predecessors that tried to complete the difficult four-day task, which was run out of gas. Not only did CofC face a tough crowd, the Cougars also had to compete against a home-court partisan crowd heavily in favor of the Mocs.
The Catamounts might as well call Asheville a home-away-from-home, as the U.S. Cellular Center is only about an hour drive from the WCU campus in Cullowhee.
The matchup 16 years ago between the two will have no bearing on what happens Monday night, but it’s often funny how things that happen in history happen similarly years later. This year’s Catamount team mirrors the one of 16 years ago in that both teams got hot at the opportune time.
Western enters tomorrow’s title game having won seven straight, while the 1995-96 team rolled into championship bout against the Wildcats having won six-straight games and 10 of its previous 11 games.
In similar fashion to the 1995-96 Davidson team, the 2011-12 Wildcats have also been nearly as dominant against league foes. Though not a perfect 18-0 against SoCon competition entering the title game, Davidson does hold an 18-2 mark against league foes entering the tournament, while WCU is 11-10 against SoCon competition this season.
Like that 1995-96 tourney, the Wildcats have also produced convincing wins in the 2012 tournament, blowing past Furman (73-54) in the SoCon quarterfinals, and followed that with another convincing win over Elon (83-67) in the SoCon semifinals.
Meanwhile, Western had little trouble with its first two foes of the tournament, knocking off The Citadel (68-56) and posting a sizable upset over second-seeded Wofford (82-59) in the SoCon quarterfinals to make Saturday evening’s semifinal game. That game saw the Catamounts claw their way to an 82-77 result over North Division champion UNC Greensboro.
The Catamounts have a talented versatile scoring squad, led by senior and SoCon active career-leading combo guard/forward Harouna Mutombo (13.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG).
After struggling early this season, Trey Sumler (13.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG) has rebounded to recapture the shooting touch so many were used to seeing in his freshman campaign last season.
Sumler’s 45 triples rank second on the team in three-pointers made. And like that 1995-96 team, which had a player by the name of Joe Stafford, who led the nation in three-point field goal shooting percentage, the Catamounts have one of the nation’s most-prolific long-range shooters in the nation 16 years later, in guard Keaton Cole (113 triples, leads team at 14.3 PPG).
Brandon Boggs is WCU’s defensive stopper (10.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, team-leading 15 blocks) and Tawaski King (7.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and Preston Ross (8.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG) are undersized, but have tag-teamed and been able to stay out of foul trouble to be WCU’s “unlikely heroes” down the stretch, just like Graham, Kullum and Scott Scholtz were in 1995-96.
Davidson counters with the co-SoCon Players of the Year, in media selection De’Mon Brooks (15.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and coaches pick Jake Cohen (13.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG).
Like the combination of Chris Alpert, Ray Mineland and Jeff Anderson in the backcourt for Davidson in 1995-96, the 2012 Wildcats have their own talented trio of sharp-shooters, in Nic Cochran (10.8 PPG,team-best 71 helpers ) and J.P. Kuhlman (10.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 29 steals), as well as defensive stopper Tom Droney (4.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG).
The Wildcats enter the title game leading the SoCon in scoring offense. Chris Czerapowicz (10.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG) has been the Wildcats’ most versatile scorer this season, with good athleticism, while also being the team’s top perimeter threat (team-high 62 treys)
A win on Monday night would give the Wildcats, who are tied for the most tournament crowns in league history, a league-record 11th SoCon Tournament crown and mark the first appearance by Davidson in the Big Dance since the magical run to the Elite Eight by the Wildcats in 2008.
A win by Western Carolina would mark only its second title in league history on the basketball hardwood, while also likely placing the Catamounts firmly in the first-four and potential 16-seed.
The Catamounts entered the tourney as the 16-seed in 1996, nearly producing the first-ever upset of a 16-seed over a No. 1-seed, eventually dropping a 73-71 contest to Purdue, which it later vacated due to an ineligible player.
The Catamounts dropped the only regular-season game meeting between the two championship game participants, with an 88-67 setback at Davidson’s John Belk Arena on Jan. 12.
The Wildcats enter leading the all-time series between the two, 37-20, including posting a mark of 7-2 in the last nine meetings.
Final Score Prediction: Davidson 86, Western Carolina 80