UNC Asheville vs. Western Carolina in basketball is a rivalry that has played out 50 times dating back to 1965, but never quite like this.
When the Catamounts (3-7) make the short drive to Asheville on Sunday to play the Bulldogs (6-4) at U.C. Cellular Center downtown, it will be as part of the inaugural Mountain Invitational.
Their tipoff is 4:30 p.m., preceded by another men’s game at 2 p.m. which also plays as the Big South Conference vs. the Southern Conference.
High Point (4-5) plays Wofford (6-4) in the opener in what organizers, which includes UNC Asheville’s administration and the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, hopes to make an annual tradition.
“I think it’s a great concept for basketball fans in the Asheville area,” said WCU coach Larry Hunter.
“It’s a chance to see four good mid-major programs play and I think this is a concept that can expand.”
“This can be a good event for the city,” said Asheville coach Nick McDevitt. “You have some good natural geographic rivalries and our fans like to see us play those teams.
“It’s a good reason for the fans of all these teams to come to Asheville and enjoy all that the city has to offer.”
The Bulldogs got off to a nice 5-2 start that included four straight wins before stumbling with losses to Clemson and Furman last week.
With time off for finals, Asheville will have played just once in the previous 12 days by Sunday, and McDevitt wants to see his team get back to the good play exhibited in the four-game win streak.
“We didn’t come out ready to play against Furman and it cost us,” he said. “We want our guys come out ready every game.”
Senior Ahmad Thomas, the team’s leader and top scorer last season at 18 ppg, is averaging just 12 ppg this season and sat out the last game, a, 97-60 rout of NAIA Milligan last Sunday.
“Ahmad was just banged up and the trainer thought it would be good if he got a few days off, but he should be ready for Western,” said McDevitt.
“Him being banged up and teams really keying in on him are a lot of the reason why his numbers are down.”
The Catamounts are off to a slow start thanks to its normal rugged non-conference schedule that included road games vs. Cincinnati, Clemson, Minnesota and UMass.
Freshman guard Matt Halvorsen (10. 8 points per game) – the former Christ School standout - and senior guard Deriece Parks (10.7 ppg) are the top scorers for a squad that is shooting just 39 percent from the floor.
“If you haven’t seen us play and just look at our record you might wonder what’s going on, but I really like this team,” said Hunter, a veteran of 38 years who has a career record of 692-441, including a 183-217 mark at WCU since 2005.
“We have consistently gotten better and we’ve been showing up with great effort and intensity every time we’ve played.”
McDevitt agrees with that assessment.
“They are a team getting better and is better than their record,” he said. “They are getting good guard play with (Halvorsen and Parks) and they have some athletic (post players), and that makes them tough.”
Hunter said the Bulldogs are tough to defend.
“They are a very balanced and veteran team, and they are versatile. They can post up, or go smaller and
their wings are good athletics who are strong physically.”
The Cats lead the all-time series 28-22 and have won three of the last four; Asheville won last year’s meeting 59-57.
Tickets for the two games range from $12.50 (general admission), $19.50 for reserved seats and $33.50 courtside. A $50 VIP ticket includes access to a lounge with snacks, drinks and two beer/wince vouchers.
Tickets can be purchased at the US Cellular Center box office, at Ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000.