Playing with a short bench that became even shorter in the first half, interim College of Charleston basketball coach Mark Byington offered apologies to Cougars fans for the team's offensive performance Thursday against Western Carolina.
But the Cougars managed to outlast the Catamounts for a 62-58 victory before a crowd of 3,637 at TD Arena.
Byington played only seven players, and junior forward Matt Sundberg, already playing on a gimpy ankle, went down hard in the first half and did not play in the final 20 minutes. Sophomore guard Trent Wiedeman sat out the game with an ankle injury after playing in 61 straight games for the College of Charleston. Two other starters were on the bench in street clothes, junior Willis Hall, who is out for the season with an ACL injury, and freshman Anthony Stitt, who is recovering from a broken hand but is expected to be back before the Southern Conference tournament.
But the Cougars got career highs from sophomore Nori Johnson, who led the team with 17 points, freshman Adjehi Baru, who collected 17 rebounds, and sophomore James Carlton, who blocked five shots in the first half.
"We're falling like flies," said Johnson, who hit 4 of 8 3-point attempts. "It's tough, but when you get a win like this under tough circumstances it makes memories. It gives us a good feeling, that when everybody comes back healthy, we'll be tough."
Charleston (15-10, 7-7 Southern Conference) got off to a slow start with the Catamounts (10-16, 4-9), taking a 12-3 lead. But the Cougars went on a 14-0 run, and the rest of the half was a back-and-forth battle.
Byington said he told the players at halftime to find a way to win and said they persevered when a lot of things were going wrong.
Antwaine Wiggins, who was 5 of 13 from the floor, hit his only 3-pointer of the game with 4:10 to go, putting the Cougars ahead for good at 50-48. Western Carolina was within a point, 52-51, but junior guard Andrew Lawrence drew a foul and began to take control at the free-throw line.
Lawrence scored seven points in the final 1:13, all but two coming from the foul line, and Wiggins added a pair of free throws down the stretch to offset a pair of 3-pointers by Keaton Cole that kept Western Carolina within striking distance.
"I apologize to all the purists. We may have set basketball back 60 years, maybe back to the days of the peach basket," Byington said. "We found a way. We made enough plays and our defense carried us. By no means was it a pretty win."
Byington said there were players playing in different positions and the Cougars never got into a rhythm. He said in the first half the team wasn't getting high-percentage shots, but that's something he will fix.
"I felt like we got more comfortable, we ran our offense more and guys made plays later in the shot clock. We're still young. We saw glimpses early in the season (of how good the team could be). We're sticking together and playing hard. Right now, that's all I can ask of them," Byington said.
Byington, who replaced Bobby Cremins 2 1/2 weeks ago when Cremins took a medical leave of absence because of exhaustion, also praised the crowd for sticking with the team and helping the Cougars pull out the win.
"I saw Carolyn Cremins (Bobby's wife) at the end of the game and she gave me a big hug," Byington said. "I told her to tell coach Cremins we won, but don't tell him how it happened. Many more games like this and I might be joining him in Hilton Head."
The Cougars are 3-2 since Byington took over and face league-leading Davidson on Saturday at 3 p.m. at TD Arena.
Brandon Boggs led Western Carolina with 15 points.
Charleston shot 27 percent (16 of 59) for the game, was 8 of 24 (33 percent) from 3-point distance and was 22 of 37 from the free-throw line (59.5 percent). Wiggins scored 15 points for the Cougars while Lawrence scored 12, seven of which came from the free throw line.