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WCU men's basketball picks up steam

Vonterius Woolbright brings the ball up the court. Donated photo Vonterius Woolbright brings the ball up the court. Donated photo

It’s a great time to be a Catamount basketball fan, certainly the best in a while. 

After winning its first six games, Western Carolina University’s men’s basketball team finally dropped its first contest last Saturday against Gardner-Webb. But even with that loss, things are looking up, as the team has also scored some impressive victories against the likes of Notre Dame and McNeese State and currently sits among the upper echelon of the Southern Conference.

The Catamounts feature a host of talented players, but it’s senior guard Vonterius Woolbright who’s really stolen the show. After a somewhat shaky start to his WCU career during which he was suspended for five games, Woolbright has grown into a versatile threat and leads the team in points (21.7 per game), rebounds (11.9 per game) and assists (4.7 per game). In the loss against Gardner-Webb, Woolbright put up a career-high 35 points to go along with 14 boards.

Most importantly, he’s become a leader on and off the court.

At 6-foot-7 with a lot of length, it may seem odd that Woolbright is the floor general on a team that starts four guards and one forward and plays quintessential “small ball.” But Head Coach Justin Gray, who himself played on a guard-heavy Wake Forest team alongside future hall-of-famer Chris Paul, is happy to have that kind of versatility in a guard that can get physical and draw fouls. And considering teams that play small ball tend to sacrifice rebounding ability for speed, Woolbright’s tenacity on the boards is certainly welcome.

Woolbright’s playing style is different than what a lot of modern guards gravitate toward. In a world where kids coming up want to be able to pull up from 30 feet out like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, Woolbright hardly ever shoots from behind the arc. In fact, he practically lives in the lane.

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“I never really tried model my game after anybody,” he said. “I’ve always been a big player, so I like to play off that advantage.” 

Woolbright came to WCU after playing his freshman and sophomore years at Lawson State Community College in Alabama. He’s been happy to have the opportunity to play against higher-level competition throughout his three seasons in Culowhee.

“It feels like I’m just another step closer to where I want to get,” he said.

All the same, Woolbright said he is far from satisfied with his impressive early-season run.

“I’m just gonna keep trying to get better each and every day,” he said. “It’s more about where I need to be than where I’m at.” 

Beyond his size and athleticism, Woolbright has proven he can come through in the clutch for his team. Just a few weeks ago, he hit the game-winning free throws with three seconds left against Middle Tennessee. Woolbright said that even in those tense moments, he doesn’t feel pressure; rather, he feels confident about the work he’s put in up to that point.

“Coach trusts me in those situations, so it made me have a high level of confidence in myself,” he said. “I know I’m in the gym every day working on all those shots and moves.” 

Woolbright said taking on a leadership role, and accepting the challenge and occasional discomfort that comes with growth, is something that his coach has pushed him to do. Woolbright noted he respects Gray, a man who has become somewhat of a mentor and has guided his growth on and off the court.

“It’s all different roles he’s got in my life; he’s somebody that I respect highly and somebody that I can talk to about anything,” Woolbright said.

But as proud as Gray is of Woolbrigh’s growth and achievements, Gray said the rest of his players have also shown a tremendous work ethic. On the afternoon The Smoky Mountain News went to Cullowhee to interview Woolbright and Gray, senior forward Charles Lampten was in the gym well before the normal practice time working on post moves with an assistant coach.  

“We got a lot of those guys like that here,” Gray said. “I can go in the gym when we’re not gonna practice for another 30 minutes, and dude’s got a lather already.”

Gray said that while he has specifically tried to develop Woolbright into a leader, one of his goals has been to form a relationship with each of his players and have a positive influence on their lives, something that he has the unique ability to do since just a couple of decades ago he was in their shoes as a college basketball player trying to win games and grow along the way.

“I try to have some kind of impact on their lives … everyone receives our message differently, and it’s our job as coaches to figure out what that is,” Gray said, adding that once that happens, coaches can set the standard and hold players to it.

While the team has been playing well and proving it’s among the best mid-major conference teams around, Gray wasn’t bashful in discussing the ultimate goal — a Southern Conference Championship, something that comes with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Big Dance, something the program hasn’t seen in almost three decades.

“Every single game is an opportunity for us to be our absolute best,” Gray said. “Then, by the time we get to February and March, if we can be healthy and we’re playing our best basketball, when it comes tournament time, if you win three games in a row, you get a chance to dance.”

news Coach Justin Gray

Coach Justin Gray guides his team from the bench. Donated photo

But for Gray, while anything seems possible this year, it’s also about continuing to build a program that can grow and reach new milestones for years to come.

“It’s about being disciplined and sticking to our daily regimen,” Gray said. “The thing about championship programs is they do things with consistency. Day in, day out. Game in, game out.” 

Part of building that kind of infectious winning culture requires generating a buzz around the team, getting the fans involved. After all, it’s hard to think of a program like Duke without thinking of the Cameron Crazies. Gray encouraged students and folks in the community to come out to some games and see what this team is all about.

“With all the work these guys put in at practice, think about what it’d be like to have a great homecourt advantage,” Gray said. “We want it to be tough to come in here and get a win, and we want to represent our community.” 

“When people come in and have a good time and support these student athletes, it makes the result that much better,” he added.

But either way, no matter how this season pans out, no matter what the team’s reputation is come March, what Woolbright wants to do is become the best player he possibly can and enjoy the rest of his senior season.

“I’m just trying to have fun with this last year and with my teammates,” he said. “I’m not really too focused on the long-term goal at this point, because, you know, you don’t get this time back. I’m just trying to take it one day a time and keep grinding, and then when that time comes, I can be happy.”

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