ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Wofford guard Karl Cochran remembers waking up at 6 a.m. for preseason conditioning workouts, leaping over chairs and diving for loose balls and wondering how it was going to help him.
Now he knows.
Cochran scored 23 points, and the Terriers beat Western Carolina 56-53 on Monday night to capture the Southern Conference championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Cochran, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, was 8 of 16 from the field and had five 3-pointers. He made two big free throws with 5.3 seconds left to give Wofford a three-point lead.
The Catamounts had a chance to send the game to overtime but Trey Sumler’s 3-pointer rimmed out as time expired.
"In the preseason you’re like when I am going to do this in a game?" Cochran said. "But you get here and you’re like, it pays off. It certainly pays off. It’s a long journey. You fight and struggle, but it pays off."
Lee Skinner had 11 points for the third-seeded Terriers (20-12), who will be making their third trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years, but first since 2011.
Fifth-seeded Western Carolina (19-15) had another impressive comeback, but was unable to get the win this time. Brandon Boggs had 17 points, and Tawaski King added 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Catamounts made just 5 of 23 shots in the first half and trailed 27-20 at the break. James Sinclair then had a pair of jump shots in a 7-0 run to begin the second half.
It looked as if Western Carolina had the momentum at that point, but it couldn’t grab the lead.
Instead, Wofford put together a 17-6 run to make it 44-33 with 8:33 left. Cochran, a junior guard, had eight points during that key stretch.
Western Carolina rallied from nine points down to beat fourth-seeded Elon and overcame a 15-point deficit in the semifinals against top-seeded Davidson. Boggs tried to lead the Catamounts on one last comeback.
He scored on three straight possessions and King had a dunk to help trim Wofford’s lead to 46-43 with 4:04 left.
"We’ve shown a million times that we don’t give up," Boggs said.
Cochran and Sumler exchanged 3-pointers, and Skinner and King each scored to leave Wofford in front 53-50 with 35 seconds remaining.
Western Carolina quickly fouled four times to put the Terriers into the bonus.
The strategy seemed to work when Spencer Collins missed the front end of a 1-and-1. But Skinner grabbed the rebound off the miss and was fouled. He made one of two free throws to make it a two-possession game with 28 seconds left.
The Catamounts failed to convert on their next possession and sent Skinner to the line again. This time he missed the front end and Boggs drilled a 3 from the left wing to make it 54-53 with 6.3 seconds left.
The Catamounts fouled Cochran on the ensuing inbounds pass and he calmly knocked down both free throws. Sumler was shadowed well on the final shot, but worked his way free to get an open look and his 20-footer hit the rim and bounced away.
Wofford coach Mike Young said he briefly contemplated having his team foul Sumler to avoid a potential tying 3, but decided against it.
"We contested well and it worked out well in the end for us," Young said. "Thank goodness."
Skinner called the idea of heading to the NCAA tournament the best feeling in the world.
"It’s the ultimate," Skinner said. "Having that brotherhood around you and then with the fans and the school behind us it’s incredible."
It’s the second time Western Carolina has reached the Southern Conference tournament final in the past three years, only to leave heartbroken. It lost to Davidson in 2012 in double overtime.
"We came up a little short on the scoreboard again, but you just keep grinding and we’ll eventually get over that hump," Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said. "I’m very disappointed and our players are very disappointed. We had focused on this all year long and put ourselves in great position. I’m disappointed for our university. We had a chance to do something really special for a lot of people and we didn’t get it done."