Photo by Jarrett A. Frazier Chattanoga's Troy Cage drives to the basket against Western Carolina's Harouna Mutombo in first half action on Friday night in Cullowhee.
CULLOWHEE, N.C. -- Omar Wattad jumped off the bench and celebrated a game-tying layup by Ricky Taylor with 12 seconds to go.
That's about all the energy he could muster in a game that came down to the final second despite the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga having four players feeling the after-effects of the flu and one in sweats suspended for the game.
Western Carolina guard Trey Sumler hit the first of two free throws with one second left to lift the Catamounts to a 69-68 Southern Conference win over the North-leading Mocs.
"On paper it's a loss, but I feel like we fought hard, played until the end and we did our best as a team," said Jahmal Burroughs, who scored 10 points in his first start of the season. "When you don't have those guys [at full strength], we have to find other players to fill that gap.
"Everybody that played did their part plus more."
Taylor pulled UTC back from a 14-point second-half deficit and tied the game at 66 on a difficult layup. Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter called time out to set up the final play.
It ended with Mocs walk-on guard Dontay Hampton guarding Sumler, who forced up a twisting jump shot at the buzzer. Referee Scott Smith called a foul on Hampton for hitting Sumler's arm.
"Dadgumit, to get that close makes you ill and makes you sick," said UTC coach John Shulman, whose team will play at Appalachian State tonight at 7. "We didn't win the game, but I don't think we lost.
"They had nothing going on the last play, and to reward them for that is amazing."
The reward was two free throws. One went in and the Catamounts (12-13, 8-5) pulled within a game and a half of the Mocs (14-12, 10-4) in the North Division.
"We lost on the scoreboard, but we won in a lot of areas tonight and we showed some character and toughness," Shulman said. "We didn't have dry eyes in that locker room. After Davidson, there were a lot of dry eyes. We had guys put their heart and soul into it [tonight], but we didn't get rewarded for it."
Hampton started and played a career-high 32 minutes with nine points, five assists and four turnovers. Burroughs hit a 3-pointer to pull UTC within three late and was 5-of-6 from the free-throw line, including two to tie it with a minute to go. And senior guard Troy Cage grabbed 11 rebounds.
"We still have hunger, we're still thirsty and no matter how it looks, we'll fight until the end," said Taylor, who led UTC with 14 points. "You could call us warriors who fight to the end."
Wattad and point guard Keegan Bell received bags of intravenous fluids on Friday's bus ride to the Ramsey Activity Center. They played season-low minutes -- 12 for Wattad and 10 for Bell. Jeremy Saffore started and Jeff Smith played 17 minutes after being ill this week.
"Omar and I didn't have a lot in the tank," Bell said. "We were both still feeling the effects. It felt weird being over there on the bench."
Bell and Wattad watched as UTC led by as many as 10 points in the first half. Then the Mocs scored only two points in the final six minutes as WCU went on a 17-2 run to close the half and take a 35-27 lead into the break.
UTC had 15 turnovers in the first half and finished with 21. WCU scored 21 points off turnovers and 16 on the break.
The Cats pushed their lead to 43-29 less than two minutes into the second half. Then Mike Williams, who led WCU with 22 points, picked up his fourth foul. He sat on the bench as UTC pulled within 62-59 on Burroughs' first 3-pointer since Dec. 2.
"Every time I got an open look I had no hesitation," said Burroughs, who scored seven points in the final five minutes. "I had in my mind that it was an open shot."
After two free throws by Williams, Taylor drove from the left wing and maneuvered himself open enough to lay in a shot over the rim with 12.5 seconds to play.
If not for a whistle with a tick to play, it would have meant five more minutes of play.
"We just never would die," Shulman said. "I hope we can learn something from this game. Maybe it propels us."
UTC bussed straight from the Ramsey Center to Boone, N.C., where third-place Appalachian State awaits. The 24-hour turnaround makes it similar to the SoCon tournament situation. The only difference is that UTC has to travel.
Once in the Holmes Convocation Center, the Mocs will have to deal with Donald Sims, who is the SoCon's second-leading scorer and had 28 points in UTC's 81-69 victory back in early December.
"We have a defense named after Sims, so I don't think it will be difficult to get ready," Shulman said. "It's very unrealistic, what they asked us to do. But we about shocked some people tonight."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...