ASHEVILLE, N.C.--When people see the No. 5 seed Western Carolina (15-16, 10-8 SoCon) Catamounts take the floor in the Southern Conference Tournament against No. 4 Wofford (15-16, 11-7 SoCon) on Saturday afternoon for their 2:30 p.m. tip-off, there is more than one recognizable figure on the sidelines, including a head coach in Larry Hunter, who has 679 wins to his credit in his standout career, as well as top assistant Anquell McCollum, who led the Catamounts to their only Southern Conference title two decades ago in his senior campaign.
The former No. 24 for the Purple and Gold, led Western to maybe the biggest upset in championship game history, as the Catamounts knocked top seeded and SoCon unbeaten Davidson (16-0 against SoCon foes prior championship game), 69-60, in the SoCon title game in Greensboro.The 1996 Southern Conference Player of the Year is now a leading member of Larry Hunter's coaching staff.
The player that affectionately went by simply "Q" during his playing days for the Catamounts, has vivid memories of that 1995-96 season, featuring both highs and lows for the Catamounts, as Western had a loss to Dan Schmotzer's Division II Coker College Cobras (L, 60-58) and also nearly became the first No. 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to knock off a No. 1 seed, leading much of the game before eventually faltering against Gene Keady's top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers, 73-71, at "The Pit" in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The Pit was a place no stranger to big-time upsets, as it also saw Jim Valvano's NC State team comple its magical carpet ride with a 54-52 national title win over heavily favored "Phi Slamma Jamma" and the Houston Cougars in the 1983 national title game in what was one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.
But what would ultimately lead to Western's near NCAA miracle making moment was cloaked in the heartbreak which came a year earlier in Asheville, which was a place that saw the Catamounts seemingly have a firm grasp on the title trophy.
McCollum, who had combined with former star guard and Baxley, GA, native Frankie King to lead the Catamounts to the 1995 title game before losing a heartbreaker (L, 63-61) in Asheville, N.C., to Mack McCarthy and the top-seeded Chattanooga Mocs, admitted that the 1995 title loss was what helped fuel the title run in 1996.
"I remember it now, that 1996 season was about getting back to the Southern Conference title game because Chattanooga had broke our hearts during the 1994-95 season, and in that game, we had a 17-point lead with 10 minutes to play and we started to think the SoCon title was ours, but Chattanooga came back strong and won, and that was a heartbreaker. We felt like we owed the SoCon one for the next season, and that's what drove us," McCollum said.
Despite the graduation of King, the Catamounts returned a good nucleus of talent to build around for the 1995-96 season, which saw four seniors play leading roles for the Catamounts, with three-point specialist Joe Stafford, and inside talents Kevin Kullum and Scott Scholtz all knowing their roles, as the quartet helped the Catamounts to the title game for the second-straight season, with Western facing another top-seed in the championship game, facing Bob McKillop's heavily favored Davidson Wildcats.
McCollum was among the national scoring leaders for much of the season, and he entered the NCAA Tournament averaging 24.3 PPG. Not only did the Catamounts have one of the nation's top 10 scorers, in McCollum, but they also had the national leader in three-point field goal percentage, as Joe Stafford finished the season connecting on a blistering 50% from three-point range.
The Wildcats had gone 14-0 in Southern Conference play two decades ago, and looked unstoppable, toppling 11 of their SoCon regular-season foes by double digits, and if you account for the Southern Conference Tournament, the Catamounts made it 13 of 16 games defeating SoCon teams by double figures. The Wildcats had players like Brandon "Ozone" Williams and point guard Chris Alpert.
"In our first game against Appalachian State, I had maybe my worst game of the season, but luckily we had other guys like Kevin Kullum, Joel Fleming and Jarvis Graham step up and have good games for us," McCollum said. "In my next game against VMI, I had 40 and I knew I needed a big game with my then girlfriend and now wife in the crowd, as well as kinda feeling like I let my teammates down in that first game against Appalachian State," he added.
McKillop's heady Wildcats had easily brushed East Tennessee State (67-43) and Marshall (92-77) to get into the title game, while Western's run to the title game date with Davidson wasn't as clear-cut, as the Catamounts had opened the tournament with a 74-66 in what was a hard-fought win over mountain rival Appaalchian State (W, 74-66), which was then followed up by a narrow 97-93 win over VMI.
"Davidson was good. They were at least flirting with the Top 25 all season, and during the regular-season, they had beat the breaks off us, so we knew how good those guys were coming into that game, but we weren't intimidated and we wanted that title. That's what it came down to. I remember looking up at the clock as it got closer to all zeroes and it was apparent we were going to win and thinking, this is the greatest time in my basketball life right now," McCollum said.
The title clash with Davidson would see a more defensive-minded McCollum help the Catamounts claim the SoCon's grand prize in the Greensboro Coliseum, as he would be held to a team-leading 13 points. But while it was a tame performance for the Catamount star offensively, it was important contributions from other Catamount players, like Graham (11 points, 7 boards), Kevin Kullum (12 points, 10 boards, 3 steals) and Joe Stafford (10 points, 3 boards) that also proved key to the title game success.
The win for McCollum and the Catamounts was keyed by a strong defensive effort, especially considering Western struggled offensively, turning the ball over 24 times in the contest, and shooting just 36% from the field. However, the Catamounts' defensive performance was one that will stick out in the minds of most Catamount fans, holding the Wildcats to a season-low 32.9% shooting clip from the field, and one of the most deadly accurate shooting perimeter clubs in college basketball to just a 3-for-24 shooting performance from beyond the arc.
"Heading into the NCAA Tournament, we had like a whole week because our tournament was one of the first to punch a ticket, so we were of the mindset, it didn't matter who we played or whatever, they put on their clothes the same way we do, practice hard like we do, and give it their all like we do, so we just took that confidence out west with us. It was awesome around campus that week. Everyone literally had NCAA Tournament fever, and I remember Michelle Tafoya being there doing a story on us and putting our campus in the spotlight for CBS, which was awesome."
McCollum would once again lead Western, posting 21 points against the Boilermakers, on 8-of-21 shooting from the field and 3-for-9 from three-point range. Though it didn't end the way McCollum had hoped, the Fayetteville, N.C., product had a Southern Conference championship ring to show for his efforts during that magical run back in ‘96.
"Winning that tournament back in 1996 was a great experience and it really started to sink in on the way back to Cullowhee from Greensboro, and then when we got back to Cullowhee, they drove the bus into the loading dock and onto the floor at the Ramsey Center, which was a total surprise to us. The fans were all there, and it was awesome. I don't think any of us went to sleep that night, and it was something I want ever forget," McCollum said.
From 1996-2000, McCollum played professionally in France, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Hong Kong was inducted returned to Western Carolina to complete his degree in 2000. Some 10 years later, McCollum would be enshrined into the Western Carolina Athletics Hall-of-Fame, completing his standout career as a two-time First-Team All-SoCon pick and was the 1996 Southern Conference Player of the Year after leading the SoCon and ranking sixth nationally in scoring average.
He finished his WCU career leader in scoring, with 1,777 points, and three-point field goals made, canning 245 three-point field goals in his career, and remains one of the most recognizable players in the history of the Southern Conference Tournament, garnering all-tournament accolades three times, with two of those citations coming in tournaments played in Asheville.
That ‘96 Southern Conference Basketball crown remains Western's greatest athletics feat since officially joining the SoCon in 1976. Now, two decades since that first and only title and four decades since officially joining the SoCon, the Catamount nation hopes that McCollum can help the Catamounts get back to that same championship summit it reached some two decades ago. To do that, he and the Catamounts we'll have to navigate a tough Southern Conference foe, in Wofford, a team that the Catamounts have faced in every SoCon tournament since 2009.
McCollum worked in the admissions office at WCU before garnering a role as Larry Hunter's assistant coach in the summer of 2004, and has remained a part of the Catamounts' staff, which also includes a pair of Catamount players from different eras, in Brigham Waginger (2006-10) and Willie Freeman (2001-03), making a trio of this staff fully invested in the program and its success at all levels. Three assistants who represent three different eras of Catamount basketball, with McCollum being the only one to win a Southern Conference crown, while Waginger was a member of the only 20-game winner in the Division I history of Catamount basketball back in the 2009-10 season.
McCollum talked about this team, and how it reminded him of that 2011-12 Western Carolina team, which made a similar Cinderella-like run to the title game in the first SoCon Tournament played in Asheville since 1995, as the Catamounts stormed their way all the way to the title game where they would eventually fall to Davidson in double-overtime, 93-91.
"This team reminds me a lot of that 2011-12 team because of how they finished the season and how we ended the season. In that run in 2011-12, we finished out the season winning its final four games of the regular-season," McCollum said.
The 2015-16 Cats enter the Southern Conference Tournament winners of four-straight just like that team of four years ago, and have also won seven of their final eight games. It's a team that is dangerous and peaking at the right time.
"Everyone is starting to really understand their roles on this team. I told them it's like opening up the hood of a car and looking under it and realizing that each part has a different role to play in making that car run perfectly. Our guys are really starting to get that now, and we feel good about how we're playing right now and with four seniors leading this group, they have kinda been through the wars before so that helps a lot. They want to make a name for themselves, and have their own part of WCU history."
The Catamounts have always had standout guards for as long as they have been in the Southern Conference, with players like Terry Boyd, McCollum, King, Kevin Martin, Brigham Waginger, Bobby Phillips, Jarvis Hayes, Trey Sumler and now Mike Brown being just a sampling of those greats from different eras. If there's any one player that can lead the Catamounts back to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament like his assistant coach did some two decades ago, it's certainly Charlotte, N.C., native Mike Brown, who features the kind of physical attributes to his game that are physical, old-school and just good, hard basketball.
"Mike Brown has been one of the most consistent players on both ends of the floor we have had since I have been here as an assistant, and he's one of those guys that could have played back in my era because of the way he defends. We know what he can do offensively, but it's what he does defensively, with rebounds, steals and just his overall hustle on that end of the floor that really helps set the tone for this team. I remember recruiting him out of West Charlotte High School where he played with Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina). He is a joy to be around as a person and a player that you know is going to bring it every time he hits the floor," McCollum said.
Brown was a Second-Team All-SoCon selection yesterday and finished out the 2015-16 regular-season by averaging 16.5 PPG and 5.8 RPG, making him one of the top rebounding guards in the SoCon. He is just the seventh player in the history of Western Carolina basketball to complete his career with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists and 100 steals in a career. Brown joins former Catamount legends Henry Logan (1964-68), Harouna Mutombo (2008-12), James Sinclair (2011-15), Trey Sumler(2009-14), Kenny Trimier (1979-83) and Bubba Wilson (1974-78) to ever accomplish those feats in each of the aforementioned categories.
Western Carolina opens the tournament Saturday afternoon against Wofford in a 2:30 p.m. contest. The Catamounts sport a 24-36 all-time record in Southern Conference Tournament play, and have made it to at least the semifinal round in five of the last six editions of the nation's oldest conference tournament.
The Catamounts have faced Wofford in six of the last eight Southern Conference Tournaments, going 1-5 in those contests. Western's lone win came in those six games against the Terriers came back in 2012, with an 82-59 quarterfinal win over Wofford. Western will at least have the homecourt backing once again in Asheville, and the confidence of a recent 52-48 win over the Terriers which came just two weeks ago.
McCollum,while he enjoys the memories of 1996, is likely ready to see some new Catamount paws on the SoCon's grand prize, and with the way Western is playing down the stretch, it would be hard to imagine they don't have at least a fighting chance to repeat the feat of McCollum some two decades removed from that memorable day for Western Carolina athletics. While he remains one of the most recognizable figures in a pantheon of greats in WCU athletics history, he wouldn't mind seeing some his current players join him in greatness next Monday night.