Cougs top Cats

John Coutlakis/Asheville Citizen-Times College of Charleston forward Willis Hall blocks Western's Mike Brown during Southern Conference Tournament action at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C Saturday.

College of Charleston forward Anthony Thomas has been the Cougars’ X-factor all season.

Against Western Carolina, Thomas was just a huge factor.

Thomas scored a career-high 18 points and Adjehi Baru recorded his league-leading eighth double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds to lead the College of Charleston past Western Carolina, 78-70, on Saturday night in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference men’s basketball tournament at U.S. Cellular Center.

The Cougars (23-9) next face Elon — a 68-61 winner over UNC Greensboro — today at 8:30 p.m.

For most of the season when Thomas has played well, the Cougars have won. Thomas turned in his most complete performance of the season as he added eight rebounds and two steals.

“It’s the tournament and you want to play well during the tournament,” Thomas said. “My teammates had a lot of confidence in me and I was trying to be aggressive and get to the rim.”

Thomas was 6 of 9 from the floor and connected on 5 of 7 free throws.

“Anthony had a couple of big-time moves tonight,” said College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik. “He did a great job of rebounding for us on the defensive end. Going into the game, one the keys for us was defensive rebounding and Anthony really cleaned up for us on the defensive glass tonight.”

Baru did his part as well, getting a SoCon-leading eighth double-double of the season to go along with two assists, three blocks and two steals.

The Cougars shot just 66 percent from the free-throw line during the regular season, but connected on 29 of 35 free throws (83 percent) against the Catamounts.

“We won the game at the free-throw line,” Wojcik said. “That was by far our best performance from the free-throw line all season and it came in a tournament setting. Hopefully that’s something we can build on for the rest of the tournament.”

Western Carolina guard Trey Sumler, who scored 27 points in Friday night’s win over The Citadel, finished with 25, but he failed to score for more than 12 minutes during the second half. Anthony Stitt and Nori Johnson took turns guarding the high-scoring guard.

“He’s an explosive player, and I thought Nori and Anthony did a great job on him,” Wojcik said. “I know that’s a tough thing to say when a guy scores 25 points, but there were long stretches when he didn’t touch the ball. He got a lot of his points late when the game had already been decided.”

The Cougars got off to a fast start, grabbing a 13-4 lead on Anthony Stitt’s layup with 15:41 to play. But any thoughts of a blowout were quickly erased as the Catamounts answered with a 17-3 run of their own and took a 21-17 lead on James Sinclair’s 3-pointer. The Cougars did not record a basket for more than seven minutes.

“We haven’t played in a week, and my biggest fear was that we wouldn’t shoot well with that long of a layoff,” Wojcik said.

The Cougars, who were 22 of 47 from the floor, found their shooting rhythm near the end of the first half and took a 31-28 halftime lead.

Charleston broke the game open with a 14-4 run to start the second half and grabbed a 45-34 lead with 15:02 to play.

It’s been more than three months since the Cougars beat Elon, 56-54, on Dec. 1. The Cougars won despite being without Trent Wiedeman.

“It’s been so long since we’ve played them, it feels like it was in another season,” Wojcik said. “We’re a different team, they’re a different team since then. I think (Lucas) Troutman is one of the best players in the league. We’re going to have our hand full.”