Western Carolina pulled off an extraordinary upset in an extraordinary game Sunday night, edging No. 1 seed Davidson 99-97 in overtime and ending the Wildcats’ chances at a third straight NCAA tournament berth.
With the loss, Davidson exited the Southern Conference for good – one game and two victories earlier than it had hoped. The Wildcats get a guaranteed postseason berth in the National Invitation Tournament by winning the regular-season league title, but that felt like little consolation after Davidson lost what was a 15-point lead early in the second half.
Davidson players were stunned and red-eyed as the frantic game ended on a half-court prayer of a shot at the buzzer by Tyler Kalinoski that wasn’t answered. The sudden end left coach Bob McKillop in a reflective mood.
“It was a great basketball game,” said McKillop, whose Wildcats will join the Atlantic 10 in July. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way our team fought, and I’m thrilled to be their coach. I thought we fought like crazy. Anytime you lose a lead, the air is sucked out of you. We had our chances to win. We didn’t win.”
No. 5 seed Western Carolina, meanwhile, was ecstatic. Two years ago, on the same floor in Asheville, the Catamounts lost one of the best basketball games I have ever seen. It was in double overtime in the 2012 conference final, with an NCAA bid at stake. Davidson won 93-91 when a Western Carolina 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.
Although this was only a semifinal – Western Carolina will play in the 9 p.m. final Monday night on ESPN2 – this game echoed that one in many ways.
“It was almost like a replay,” said Catamounts senior guard Trey Sumler, who had 25 points and the two winning free throws with 3.3 seconds left. “We felt it going into overtime. We wanted to stay away from double overtime, because we know what happened last time.”
The Wildcats have been the kings of the Southern Conference for most of the past decade and came into the game with a 13-game winning streak. Western Carolina got 72 points from its three starting guards, kept Davidson star De’Mon Brooks in foul trouble most of the game and dethroned the Wildcats.
After Sumler’s free throws – which followed a controversial tripping foul call on Davidson’s Jack Gibbs on a Sumler drive – the Wildcats had one last chance with 3.3 seconds left.
Davidson used a play it calls “home run,” which called for Kalinoski to get the ball from Brooks on the inbounds pass and then throw it to Brian Sullivan coming off a screen for a 3-pointer.
It broke down quickly.
“I caught the ball, turned to look up and I didn’t see him open,” Kalinoski said. “They had two players on me. And so when I got it over halfcourt, I just had to throw it up.”
Kalinoski’s shot wasn’t close, and Western Carolina celebrated. The Cullowhee school has only been to one NCAA tournament in its history, but it was memorable. In 1996, Western Carolina was a No. 16 seed that only lost by two points in the first round to No. 1 seed Purdue.
Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter got 26 points from sharpshooter James Sinclair and 21 from slasher Brandon Boggs. What helped the Catamounts the most, however, was Brooks’ foul trouble.
Brooks, the league’s two-time player of the year, only took five shots and played just 26 minutes. Western Carolina’s big surge early in the second half came with him mostly on the bench. And although he scored 17 points and never ultimately fouled out, Brooks also had some critical free-throw misses late in the game.
“Any time you lose a player of De’Mon’s caliber – he just makes everyone on our team so much better,” McKillop said. “I think (the foul trouble) broke his rhythm but it also broke the rhythm of our team.”
Davidson shot 55 percent for the game, but Western Carolina shot 51.6 and outrebounded the Wildcats 36-25.
The Wildcats got 22 points from guard Chris Czerapowicz, 15 from Kalinoski and 15 from big man sub Jake Belford, but they could not stop Sumler’s drives, as he repeatedly got fouled going to the basket. Sumler ended up making 15 of 16 free throws, including the final two.
“Davidson was the big man in the Southern Conference,” Western Carolina’s Sinclair said. “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”
On Sunday night, after narrowly falling short two years ago, Western Carolina did just that.