Outlast, Outplay

UNCA 104, Winthrop 101.

If you were not there, you missed an electrified Kimmel like I haven’t seen since we hosted the Big South Tournament a few years back. Two bands, packed student sections, and even a large section for Winthrop provided an atmosphere for this game thick with adrenaline, despite some fans simply refusing to stand at the beginning.

Allow me to paint a picture: a narrow loss to Winthrop in Rock Hill, where the teams were almost even on the statline; a chance for an Asheville victory that could place them within reach of the Big South Regular Season Title, and, therefore, tournament hosts; Keon Johnson looking to redeem himself from a terrible 1-11 shooting performance in Rock Hill; MaCio Teague hoping to bounce back from a failed buzzer-beating, game-tying shot in the last matchup; Alec Wnuk, a very important post piece, out for this game, wearing a boot.

When the Bulldogs came out fighting, I knew, perhaps even more than when I arrived, the crowd was in for greatness. A couple quick three’s put UNCA at a 10-4 lead that Winthrop rapidly eliminated thanks to Xavier Cooks and few defensive breakdowns. With about eight minutes remaining, Okeke had to sit with two fouls, an issue for most of the game that helped Asheville in the paint. And props to Vannatta for a buzzer-beater to end the first half.

However, Winthrop struck first in the second half, building a seven point lead off great defense and Asheville’s sloppy effort. The Bulldogs wouldn’t let go though as they hustled back with some rebounds, steals, and drives that threw Winthrop off balance. Unfortunately, that momentum wasn’t to be. For long while, a chill blew through Kimmel where UNCA never could get that tying basket. With four minutes remaining, down six with team fouls in the Eagles’ favor, the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs, led by Ahmad Thomas, made. it. happen.

I could spend another few paragraphs writing about the final events of regulation like Cook fouling out, Robertson’s missed FT, and the ice-cold veins that put MaCio Teague #9 on the SportsCenter Top 10, or the Teague-Thomas connection against the he-Bro-ics of the Broman brothers, or even Keon Johnson’s 41st, 42nd, and 43rd points being blocked by MaCio Teague to seal the 2OT victory, but, instead, I want to break this down into three final points:

  1. Free-Throws. Winthrop outshot UNC-Asheville, but in FT’s, it was the Bulldog’s game. Asheville has shot poorly from the line all season, as I have documented. However, UNCA finished 27-32 from the stripe. Championship-caliber teams are not necessarily defined by stellar play throughout the season, but growth in problem areas, always fine-tuning. Specifically, a season-best 84.4% (not counting 7-7 against Presbyterian), not far removed from an 84.0% outing against Charleston Southern.
  2. Coaching. Coach McDevitt switched defenses well, tried Zilli and Smith, and he trusted the team, allowing the leaders to do what they need to do on the court, including let four starters play over 40 minutes, despite a 48 hour turnaround to play Longwood. And he deserves props for making them practice FT’s too. On the other hand, Coach Kelsey found himself in a difficult position without Cooks, with Okeke quickly getting his fourth foul in the first OT, and he trusted Johnson to be “the guy,” which he almost was several times, especially with his career-best, 40 point game. What fans saw were two dynamite coaches that mean everything to Big South basketball.
  3. The Big South Standings. The road ahead favors the Bulldogs. I do not want to understate how difficult road games are in the Big South, but looking at the schedule, things look positive. Hoping for good rest, the Bulldogs play Longwood (3-10 in conference) in Virginia. After that, we’ve got Presbyterian (1-12) in Asheville, away at Campbell (5-8), and away at Gardner-Webb (7-6), before returning home for the final regular-season game against Liberty (11-2). The final two games will be especially tough ,since GW was an OT victory last time, and Liberty has played well. However, Asheville now owns the tie-breaker against Winthrop. Liberty must play Winthrop in Rock Hill and High Point, and Winthrop must play Liberty and Gardner-Webb. That means, i) Liberty would have to win-out to get the championship (unlikely), ii) even if we lose one, Winthrop can’t jump us in the standings, and iii) we could finish the season 4-1 and win the Big South, especially if we don’t lose to Liberty.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make the Presbyterian game, but rest assured, I will be there when we face Liberty on the 25th.  GO BULLDOGS!!!