Western Carolina holds off late Notre Dame rally

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Southern Conference preseason Player of the Year Vonterius Woolbright produced 22 points and 11 rebounds as Western Carolina held off a late Notre Dame rally to earn a 71-61 nonconference victory Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Ind.

After Notre Dame trimmed a 17-point deficit to 3 with 3:45 to play, Woolbright sank six straight free throws to preserve Western Carolina’s first win over a Power 6 conference opponent since a 69-64 defeat of DePaul on Nov. 16, 2010.

Senior guard Russell Jones Jr. added 20 points and 3 steals while DJ Campbell contributed 12 points for the Catamounts (2-0), who held the lead for all but 27 seconds.

Freshman forward Carey Booth delivered 20 points to pace Notre Dame (1-1) while rookie guard Markus Burton added 17 points and Northwestern transfer Julian Roper II contributed 12 points and a team-high 8 rebounds.

Notre Dame took a 3-2 lead on Matt Zona’s 3-pointer 90 seconds into the game, but Western Carolina answered with 3-pointers by Jones on its next two possessions to set the tone for the game.

The Catamounts took their first double-figure lead on backup center Colin Granger’s jumper that made it 23-12 with 9:24 left in the half. That’s when Irish freshmen Booth, Burton and Logan Imes sparked a rally that pulled Notre Dame within 27-25 on Booth’s 3-point play at the 4:58 mark.

Western Carolina responded with 11 points in a row — triggered by Woolbright’s own conventional 3-point play — to build a 42-29 halftime advantage.

The Catamounts pushed their lead to 17 points at the outset of the second half before the Irish made their move. Burton and Roper buried back-to-back 3-pointers to slash the lead to 47-39 and force Western Carolina to call a timeout with 15:05 to go.

Once again, Western Carolina shrugged off the run. Jones started a 9-2 spree with a 3-pointer and capped it with a driving layup that gave the Catamounts a 55-39 margin with 12:37 left.

That sparked another Notre Dame comeback as the Irish reeled off 12 consecutive points, capped by Booth’s 3-pointer that cut the deficit to 55-51 with 6:08 to go. Booth drilled 3-pointers on Notre Dame’s next two possessions, too, to bring the hosts within 60-57 at the 4:48 mark.

But the Irish could get no closer as they managed just 4 points on their final nine possessions to suffer their first loss in the coach Micah Shrewsberry era.