Tourney Power!

Women’s Basketball

Oh ye of little faith! I’m talking about me because a few posts back I wrote the following:

If the Bulldogs were able to grab all four victories, they would be in premier position to win the tournament riding such a hot streak. However, I expect the Bulldogs to play well and play hard, but, come tournament time, I don’t expect victory.

While the team didn’t beat Radford that day, they did put three straight wins together entering the tournament. Given the team’s struggles this season, I did not expect a Big South Championship, which was a reasonable position. Unfortunately/fortunately, I was wrong and the women completed the impossible: first team to win the tournament completing four games in four days and first team to win as a 7-seed.

I’m so proud of the Bulldogs to come back after a rough year full of injuries. While they will play in the tournament, the Bulldogs drew a tough seeding at 16 and will play South Carolina in Columbia on Friday.

Men’s Basketball

With the loss to Campbell in the Big South Tournament, UNC Asheville came under some harsh judgment, in my opinion. Despite the tie for the regular season championship, Asheville was passed over by the NIT selection crew and landed with Big South members Liberty and Campbell in the College Insider Tournament. No Big South school was selected for the NIT.

The Bulldogs will play at UT Martin on Thursday at 8pm.

 

Again, congrats to the women and Coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick for completing a remarkable transformation on a team plagued by injury. Best of luck to the women and men as they take on postseason competition.

GO BULLDOGS!

Advertisements

Couldn’t Make It Easy

Gardner-Webb 81, UNC-Asheville 76.

My initial reaction to this loss was, “That’s it, we’re done, we will never win a game again, no reason to even have a basketball team anymore!”

Realizing I may have overreacted, I began looking at the stats of the game:

  • Points in the paint were almost even
  • Shooting percentage was even
  • Asheville committed 11 turnovers, compared to GW’s 20, of which we accounted for 13

However,

  • Bulldogs only scored 11 points off GW’s 20 turnovers
  • First half, UNCA had 15 defensive rebounds; second half, 9
  • GW outrebounded by 15
  • 51.7% from the FT line
  • 18.8% from the 3-point line, including David Robertson 0-2

Fellow fans, that is one rough night. I credit Gardner-Webb’s defense for pushing UNCA off the three point line and into driving situations and then covering the attempts to pass back out. I think that knocked Asheville out of rhythm in a game where they were already feeling the stakes. Winning on the road in the Big South is extremely tough.

Hopefully, that stays true today when Liberty arrives. Earlier in the season, Asheville defeated Liberty 70-57, shooting a high 45% from three. We can only hope it’s a similar game, especially after the trouble from three against GW.

A win over Liberty will be incomplete without a win by High Point in the Piedmont.  That game starts at 4pm. Wins by Asheville and High Point mean Asheville gets the #1 seed. Without the High Point win, UNCA will be seeded at #2.

Have faith. One bad game may be best prep for the tournament – whether we’re hosting or not.

Side note for sportsfans: here’s a great piece on Liberty moving to FBS football and what that means for the Big South.

Beatin’ Up Baptists

Men’s Basketball

The Bulldogs are officially alone atop the Big South after a win over Campbell, 66-53, and Winthrop’s win over Liberty. Asheville struggled against the Camels to start the game and Campbell played great defense.  However, without some the Camels’ top scorers, they were unable to keep pace with UNCA.

The hot hand of the day was David Robertson, whose seven 3’s accounted for over one-third of Asheville’s total points. Props to Kevin Vannatta too, whose poor shooting day turned into a great passing day, with nine assists.

The two persons I most want to discuss, though, are Will Weeks and Jonathan Baehre. In a previous post, I wrote of my affinity for Baehre because of his size.  It’s great seeing him grow as he contributed 15 minutes against Campbell, including two offensive rebounds and five points. But his biggest contribution was size, despite some deficiencies in speed. His defensive presence gave Campbell trouble multiple times. Weeks, on the other hand, shined on the offensive side of the court with 18 points. Come tournament time, UNC-Asheville’s opponents will work hard to cover our guards, which is why the post needs to be versatile and ready to score.

The Bulldogs have two critical games left to finish the season.  First, on Thursday in Boiling Springs, Asheville faces off against another Baptist school in Gardner-Webb.  The first meeting went into overtime before UNCA could grab the “W.” I suspect this game will no less thrilling as the Runnin’ Bulldogs of GW have been a tough beat all year for everyone.

Second, UNC-Asheville will end the season against Liberty inside Kimmel Arena. After getting beat-up by Winthrop, Liberty will face an exhausted Longwood squad before coming to Asheville. When they played in early January, the Bulldogs were able to grab victory in Lynchburg  which hasn’t happened for many teams. And, thankfully, the Bulldogs are unbeaten at home in conference play.

So the Big South standings could play out a few different ways:

  1. Bulldogs win out. By winning both games, Asheville takes the regular season crown and hosts the tournament.  Again, we’re unbeaten at home, so hosting the tournament is a huge advantage.
  2. Bulldogs lose at GW, win against Liberty. If UNCA loses to GW, assuming Liberty and Winthrop win, then all three teams will have the same conference record.  Therefore, while, I cannot say this is definitive, I will justify my position as to how the Big South would judge this situation: should Asheville defeat Liberty, the Bulldogs should be the conference winner because they will have the most recent victory over both of the opponents with whom they’re tied.
  3. Bulldogs win at GW, lose to Liberty. Honestly, if this happens, and assuming Winthrop and Liberty win their other games, I have no idea how the Big South will judge this situation. It becomes a rock, paper, scissors-scenario where there is no definitive way to declare a conference champion because each has one up over the other.
  4. Bulldogs drop both games. No-just, no.

Women’s Basketball

After destoying Longwood at home this past Saturday, UNC-Asheville has four games remaining. As I’ve mentioned before, injuries hurt this team in ways they’ve not been able to recover. The Bulldogs are third from the bottom in the standings with games to go against the currently 1st and 4th best teams. If the Bulldogs were able to grab all four victories, they would be in premier position to win the tournament riding such a hot streak. However, I expect the Bulldogs to play well and play hard, but, come tournament time, I don’t expect victory.

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!!!

 

Game of Runs

I’m more of an “early to bed, early to rise” kind of person, so the 11 o’clock hour required by 9 p.m. games means I’m recording the second half. When I wake up, I turn on the TV briefly to the news, try to not look at the score, and then finish watching the game. When I do catch the score, like I did Friday morning, I nevertheless watch the game because I need to know the story. Non-basketball lovers don’t understand that commitment.

When 76-73 Winthrop came across the screen, I thought, well, not ideal, but I bet we gave them a real run. I had seen the first half effort: Okeke’s foul trouble, forcing turnovers, Teague playing quarterback in the fastbreak, and Miller’s hot hand for threes. Of course, I had also seen Malik Smith get two fouls in less than 30 seconds and attempt a three. Asheville did a great job switching defenses and staying on the ball, but no one ever ran away with the game. The even, back and forth nature of the half led right into the second half.

UNC Asheville racked up fouls, turnovers, and missed more shots than trigger-happy stormtroopers, but balanced by forcing turnovers and making the FT’s from Winthrop’s own foul trouble in the second half. Asheville went roughly 11 minutes without a FG. In total, UNCA scored six FG’s and 19 FT’s.  You read that right 19 FT’s in 20 minutes of basketball on 25 attempts (76%).  When Thomas and the Bulldogs finally came to life, Winthrop had already gained the lead.

I’ve said before height has hurt us, and it continues to hurt. When a team plays the 1-3-1, you’re center is almost never the man at the bottom of the paint. He’s usually near the top of the paint. If the opposing team can fix their spacing and work the ball around, they can likely get their center the ball for an easy two. Moreover, the size of Winthrop’s Okeke presents a rebounding problem. Toward the final minutes, Okeke scored back-to-back down low, one with an offensive rebound, while we played the 1-3-1. Winthrop, outrebounding by 7, managed 16 second-chance points, while Asheville only got three. I give full credit to Winthrop for knowing their gameplan well enough to push the ball to the corners when UNCA played the 1-3-1 too. On four consecutive possessions, Winthrop attempted three long balls from the same corner and turned the ball over once.

So what now?

The Bulldogs focus on today, Campbell, and winning at home. Winning at home is critical because winning away in the Big South is so difficult. Only two teams in the Big South are below .500 at home, while only one team is above .500 away: Winthrop. Currently, UNCA sits second in the standings, down one game, behind the tie for first between Winthrop and Liberty, who play each other today. I feel confident that by Februrary 9th, when UNCA plays Winthrop in Asheville, the Bulldogs will be ready–and able to score more than six baskets in a half.

See you later for Women against Liberty and Men against Campbell!

Hot Hands, Cold Temps

The Bulldogs melted every inch of snow in Asheville today with the heat from their win over High Point, 88-58. With the exception of eight seconds when the score was 0-0, the Bulldogs led the entire game. The women, facing Longwood, had the same experience in Virginia winning 80-53, leading all, but the first 11 seconds. Unfortunately, I was unable to catch the women’s broadcast as the games were played simultaneously.

Threes rained all day from Robertson, hitting 5-of-9, Miller, 4-for-4, and Teague, 3-for-3. The halftime score of 50-25 says it all. Similarly, the women’s halftime score was 40-21.

So instead of focusing on today’s games, let’s catch-up.

Men’s Basketball

During the holiday stretch, Asheville experienced two gut-wrenching games. The first conference matchups against Radford and Gardner-Webb went into overtime. After losing to Radford in OT, I was convinced the Bulldogs were doomed for a repeat after Gardner-Webb hit a game-tying basket to send it into extra time. However, Asheville stayed strong and fought for a five-point victory.  Thankfully, the Bulldogs followed the “W” up with a decisive win over Liberty, which led into their hot shooting today.

Speaking of hot shooting, since conference play began, David Robertson has been seeing the basket as a wide-open barn door: 20-of-34 from long range. That’s 58.8% from three. Watching him shoot today, I thought Robertson to be the most confident shooter in the world. I love that Robertson has found a way to get past the early season struggles and find his place.

With the win today, UNCA sits tied for first with Longwood, Winthrop, Liberty, and Radford…so almost everyone. The schedules will have to run their course before a more dominant team emerges. However, Longwood, Liberty, and Radford have overall records under .500, so I will focus on preseason favorite Winthrop. (Although Liberty ranked second, ahead of UNCA too, the non-conference schedule Liberty played doesn’t compare to those below.)

Winthrop and UNC-Asheville hold similar records: 11-4 and 11-6, respectively; a single conference loss to Radford (UNCA played away, Winthrop at home); and a win over Furman (UNCA played away, Winthrop at home). Whereas the Bulldogs claim a win over Siena, a nail-biting loss to Ohio State, and big loss to Kansas, Winthrop holds wins at Saint Louis and Illinois and losses to Dayton and Florida State. Based on the schedule, I rank these two teams evenly.

Women’s Basketball

The ladies have been hurting for the win I’m happy to say they got today against Longwood. The incredible run of victories in the nonconference schedule ended in a four game slide starting with Appalachian State, through the Fordham Classic, and into the first conference matchup against Campbell. The Bulldogs came close to beating Campbell a few times, but, despite K.J. Weaver’s double-double effort, they never closed the deal.

In the conference, Radford and Campbell are tied atop the standings; both undefeated in conference, even holding the same overall record at 10-3. In the preseason, Radford was picked behind UNCA, the favorite, while Campbell was picked 8th. Campbell’s record, while impressive, doesn’t feature great teams, but they are hot with seven wins in a row. On the other hand, Radford’s schedule includes wins over good teams like Wake Forest, with losses to only bigger teams like Kentucky and Virginia Tech (a team the Bulldogs almost beat to open the season). Radford has not lost a single home game either.

UNC-Asheville’s playing with a lot of competition in the Big South. However, I think Bulldogs will get into stride as conference play continues. Certainly, one loss to the streaking Campbell Camels will not break the season. Most importantly, this is just the beginning.

Battle for Ohio

You would think a battle for Ohio would include two Ohio teams, but you would be wrong. Compared to Ohio State’s seven native Ohioans, UNC Asheville actually boasts four: Malik Smith, Drew Rackley, MaCio Teague, and Kevin Vannatta. All of which got minutes in the nail-gnawer against OSU. While the Bulldogs played every ounce of effort, fought for position, forced turnovers, and clawed back into place to win, UNCA just couldn’t quite grab the “W” in the loss to Ohio State, 79-77.

The very first thing I notice about Power 5 teams compared to UNCA is almost always size. The Buckeyes possessed height and length that the Bulldogs had trouble downplaying. OSU scored 48 points in the paint, almost double UNCA. The Buckeyes also outrebounded Asheville by 11. However, Asheville made up for that height by raining from three all night. Finishing just shy of 50%, the Bulldogs made more threes than OSU attempted. Raekwon Miller started the trend before Vannatta, Robertson, Teague, and even Wnuk, whose threes were critical, contributed to the total.

Foul trouble for UNC Asheville began quickly. With roughly 10:30 remaining in the first half, OSU started the bonus. When the game finished, no starter had fewer than three fouls, with Kevin Vannatta fouling out and Alec Wnuk coming off the bench to contribute four fouls.

After two OSU technicals (thanks for Teague for hitting those FT’s) and a Thomas steal, Kevin Vannatta made a fantastic play to draw a foul shooting a three, with the score 75-71. Unfortunately, Vannatta, a near 70% FT shooter, missed the first two, before making the third. Those were the only free throws Vannatta shot all night. After Ohio State scored, 77-72, Wnuk found a lane and drove to the basket before being blocked by a player, forcing the ball to clank the rim rather than roll over it. Now, being a referree is an incredibly difficult job, so when I say this, I am fully aware of gray area: Wnuk was fouled. Having watched the play live and replaying the clip at home, the defender’s hand made contact with Wnuk’s hand. Unfortunately, the call (or lack thereof) didn’t go our way. Although Wnuk drilled a second three, his third for the season, with 5.2 seconds left and Teague another basket before OSU inbounded and the buzzer sounded, the effort would not be enough for victory.

However, by no means should the Bulldogs hang their heads.  OSU came in favored by 14 and survived Asheville, rather than defeated them.  Asheville’s turnovers stayed low and shooting percentage kept fairly high.  While the non-conference season ends with back-to-back losses, I know UNCA will be prepared for conference play.

Recognitions

Raekwon Miller. The first half belonged to Raekwon.

Alec Wnuk. “No, don’t take the three…YEAH! He hit the three!”  He’s shooting 37.5% from distance for the season, but on eight attempts. Overall, still not something I necessarily encourage, but Wnuk’s threes have made a lot of news this season.

MaCio Teague. A team high 23 points, 5 assists, 1 steal, and only 1 turnover.

Quick shoutout to the Alumni office for putting together a watch party for this game. I had a lot of fun catching up, meeting folks, and seeing the game with a loyal crowd.

With Christmas around the corner, I will not be able to attend the conference matchup at home, but I have every intention of seeing the game against High Point on January 7th in Kimmel Arena.  See you there!