The Charlotte 49ers fell behind early again. They rallied again. And they lost again.
That was the all-too familiar story for Charlotte in a 74-66 Conference USA basketball loss Thursday against Western Kentucky at Diddle Arena.
In losing for a fourth consecutive time, the 49ers (6-8, 0-2) didn’t perform any differently in their first game under interim head coach Ryan Odom than they had been under Alan Major, who is taking an indefinite medical leave of absence.
“Every game we come out, we put ourselves in a hole,” said reserve freshman guard Torin Dorn, who led the 49ers with career highs in points (26) and rebounds (10). “Then we fight an uphill battle to get back in it and run out of energy late. We can’t keep letting this happen.”
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Charlotte has now trailed by double digits in its each of its last 12 games and hasn’t led at halftime since the season’s second game.
The Hilltoppers (9-5, 2-0) started with their 3-point game ablaze. Western Kentucky made its first seven 3-pointers and led by as many as 14 points (30-16) midway through the first half.
“We’ve got to be ready to play,” said Odom. “But our guys are resilient. We came back; didn’t give up. But we didn’t finish the game like we wanted.”
Charlotte got a boost from Dorn, who came off the bench to help the 49ers tie it 40-40 at halftime. The 49ers were also dominating the Hilltoppers on the boards, finishing the game with a 49-29 edge.
Charlotte outscored Western Kentucky 9-2 to start the second half, going up 49-42 on a basket by center Mike Thorne (12 points, 10 rebounds) with 13 minutes, 53 seconds left. But Western Kentucky, which would finish the game going 13-of-33 from 3-point range, answered with back-to-back long-range shots by Trency Jackson and T.J. Price.
“Those were dagger 3s,” said Dorn.
All of those deep shots were ultimately the difference, although the Hilltoppers cooled off considerably after their initial onslaught.
“When you outscore the other team by 30 (Charlotte was 3-of-39) form the 3-point line, you’re going to win a lot of games,” said Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper, whose team committed only four turnovers. “But I thought we fell in love with the 3, which concerned me. But then we got it going inside.”
The 49ers had to play the final five minutes without point guard Pierria Henry, who fouled out with five points, five assists, five rebounds and a steal.
Dorn said he didn’t think Major’s absence had an effect on how the 49ers played.
“We’re all staying positive, trying to win these games and fight for him,” said Dorn. “Because he’s fighting for us to get back.”
But Dorn also said the news of their coach’s leave of absence earlier this week was stunning. It’s the second leave of absence for Major in a year. After having procedures on his eyes and heart last summer, he returned to work too quickly in September, according to 49ers athletics director Judy Rose.
“He was hiding it a little bit, trying to be trooper fighting his way back through,” said Dorn. “We didn’t know how sick he was or the extent of his situation. We were all shocked and weren’t expecting it.”
Major’s presence was still felt by the players. A hand-written note from him was posted on Charlotte’s locker room door:
“You are a special team,” Major’s note read. “Have trust in the trenches tonight. Be great the only we know how: together.”
The 49ers stay on the road with a game Saturday at Marshall. Western Kentucky is at home Saturday against 25th-ranked Old Dominion.