Figuring Things Out

Men’s Basketball

Riding high off three straight wins, Asheville faced the USC Upstate Spartans, who will be a Big South Conference opponent very soon. While these two teams have played a lot, this game was entirely UNCA.

Never losing the lead, UNCA dominated by shooting 50% for the game, including 56.5% from long range and 72% from the line. Most importantly, the Bulldogs scored 28 baskets on 22 assists, a remarkable 79%. They also forced a majority of the Spartans’ turnovers, scoring 25 points off turnovers. The final: 82-70 Bulldogs.

Notables include 6-8 from 3 for Teague, a double-double for Thomas (24 points and 11 rebounds), and a close, but not quite double-double for Baehre (13 points and 8 rebounds, 6 offensive).

And everything good about that game was the opposite against Clemson. For example, the Bulldogs only shot 34% for the game, 26% from three, and 62.5% from the line with only 8 attempts. Asheville committed 16 turnovers, many unforced.

I’m not suggesting Clemson’s defense wasn’t good, or that they didn’t deserve the win; Clemson dominated paint with 48 points. But even when the Bulldogs had looks, the ball would not pass through the hoop – and when that happens, not much can be done to win. Clemson destroys 83-52.

The quick roadtrip south started at Clemson and ended in Greenville against Furman. This winnable game gave way to the main nemesis of UNC-Asheville: turnovers. Teams shot roughly the same percentages, received support from the bench, and played well in the paint. The differences were 21 turnovers by the Bulldogs to Furman’s 14, 13 FTA’s for the Bulldogs to Furman’s 22, and Furman: 20 assists on 29 baskets, Asheville: 9 assists on 29 baskets.

If I showed someone those numbers without mentioning the score (83-72 Furman), I guarantee they would say that Furman won. Good teams don’t win by committing that many turnovers. Thankfully, UNCA will have another chance to defeat a Southern Conference opponent when they face Western Carolina on the 17th.

Lastly, Division II opponent from just over the mountain, Milligan College, came to Kimmel and it was exactly what you would hope or expect: 97-60 Asheville (and without Ahmad Thomas). The Bulldogs forced turnovers, high assists-to-baskets-made (22-31), and dominated the rebound game. And, yes, a bit of sloppy play in the second half lead to a total of 16 turnovers for UNC-Asheville.

I’ll add that it was great to see former Bulldogs John Williams and Chris Stephenson in attendance.

Women’s Basketball

Unless you’ve missed them completely, you’ve probably heard that the women’s team is struggling to win this year. Absent a win over Division II opponent, Warren Wilson, the Bulldogs have yet to make it happen.

However, in the past two games against D-I opponents, UNC-Asheville has hung tightly, at times having led. At Wofford, the Bulldogs led through three quarters before stagnating in the fourth. While Asheville outrebounded, they also out-turned-over, leading to 20 points for Wofford.

An interesting note for the Wofford game, Zip Scott saw 26 minutes, leading to a start against Mercer and 28 minutes.

With the Wofford game close and  scoring 100 against Warren Wilson despite the team’s scoring struggles thorughout the year, I expected a competitive game against a 7-2 Mercer squad. I expected a team actively growing. I was not disappointed there.

I was disappointed to see Mercer explode in the third quarter despite Ali Trani starting the quarter with 2 three pointers, an assist, a rebound, and a forced turnover; to see some bad calls and cheap fouls that led to 3 Bulldogs fouling out; and to see a few too many turnovers, though Mercer didn’t completely capitalize on those, only 12 points on 14 turnovers.

Despite the margin at the end of the game, Asheville stayed close to Mercer.

I’m hopeful this is Coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick working her magic as the team comes together to present a more formidable squad come conference play.

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Early Season Patterns

Men’s Basketball

After the narrow loss to Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs were hungry for victory against the Austin Peay Governors. The turnover bug that haunted them through the first few games hung around during this one too, but it did not prevent them from grabbing the win.

Asheville suffered 21 turnovers to the Governors’ 12 steals, leading to 26 points off turnovers for Austin Peay. By comparison, Austin Peay committed only 11 turnovers to UNCA’s 6 steals, allowing the Bulldogs only 7 points off turnovers.

While free throw percentage has improved over the season, it dropped in this game to 70%. However, the free throws made were timely as they were last second push to keep Asheville ahead. In truth, that’s more directly attributed to MaCio Teague, an excellent FT shooter.

Monmouth came to Asheville to finish their road trip, previously losing by 20 to UVA. I briefly watched the Hawks play in that game and, for UNCA, I was scared of one thing: size. Monmouth plays 3 big men 6’9″ or bigger, listed at 245 lbs and above. UNCA’s big men top out at 6’9″ (only Baehre) and all list around 200 lbs. Therefore, I expected a few things: Monmouth constantly pushing the ball to the paint where UNCA could collapse the zone and hope for turnovers or poor shooting on the kick-outs from the paint; and UNCA constantly moving their bigs to wear out Monmouth, forcing the Hawks to zone, where UNCA could knock down threes.

What I watched was none of that. What I watched was a smaller team who worked hard at boxing out to make good rebounds, who collected 13 steals, who had 13 assists on 21 made baskets (62%), and who led the entire game. And what I watched was a man possessed, Kevin Vannatta, who played 38 minutes and scored 25 points, including 5-5 from three.

I don’t want to diminish the other contributions, like Thomas’s double-double or Baehre’s 4 offensive rebounds, but having watched Vannatta’s hot and cold career, it was so enjoyable to watch him play like he was shooting into the ocean. This was a great win for UNC-Asheville.

With two straight wins, Asheville faced a Wofford team that posed similar matchup problems. Wofford plays three bigs 6’8″ to 6’11” with 25-50 pounds on UNCA’s post players.

In the first half, both teams played about the same level. But in the second half, Asheville could’ve beaten just about anyone. The half started with a Teague three, then a Rackley three, a Rackley assist, a Rackley almost steal, another Rackley assist, and all before MaCio Teague scored 4 three pointers in a row.  And then Baehre got in on the party (3-4 from long-range)!

The team looked unstoppable, posting 52 for the half. Great defense brought about momentum, great passing pushed into better shooting. UNC-Asheville finished with 55% shooting for the game (70% in the second half), with 22 assists on 31 made baskets (71%), and, of their 9 turnovers, 6 were Wofford steals, meaning the Bulldogs were not making unforced errors.

The whole team contributed, including some great minutes for Grant Townsend, as fouls were an issue in the first half, and they all keep improving.

The streak continues to 3! And we’re looking at you, USC Upstate!

(Two quick notes: Thomas joined the 200 steals club and Vannatta passed the 1,000 career points mark.)

Women’s Basketball

Coming off the loss to the Charlotte 49ers, the Bulldogs faced the Davidson Wildcats (2-2 before this game). Unfortunately, another winnable game was lost to poor shooting and turnovers.

This marked the second consecutive game where the Bulldogs shot 12.5% from long-range and roughly 33% from the game. However, the most interesting pattern is scoring by quarter.

In the second quarter, here are the Bulldogs scoring totals: 9 against Western, 8 against Charlotte, and 4 against Davidson. I did not include 18 scored against NC State as that quarter followed a 7-point first quarter, and the Bulldogs scored a so-far rare 43% for the NCSU game, including 44% from three-point range. The MTSU game followed like the NC State game.

In the end, a 21-point fourth quarter couldn’t save the Bulldogs. Points in the paint, points off turnovers, second chance points, and bench points were all comparable. The 8-point difference really resulted from a few more made threes from the Wildcats and a few more turnovers by the Bulldogs.

As I said in preseason, Middle Tennessee State comes to Asheville as an established post-season presence. The presence of their fans almost outnumbered that of UNCA’s as the doubleheader began.

Knowing that, I expected a more competitive version of the NC State game. Unfortunately, I was right.

In the first quarter, the Bulldogs scored only 8 points. The most indicative stretch was when Asheville collected 3 or 4 offensive rebounds on a single offensive possession before failing to score. The rest of the game UNCA stayed competitive, but the Blue Raiders dominated in the paint. MTSU committed far too many turnovers, but the Bulldogs couldn’t capitalize. Asheville pulled to 10 in the final minutes, but the deficit built in the first quarter was too much to overcome.

The women’s team lost a lot of leadership and scoring from the prior year, so let’s call this a building year (not re-building). Bree Fitzgerald and Khalia Webb are the only Seniors and this creates valuable time for many of the younger players to grow.

That First Week Tho’

Men’s Basketball

One up, one down, and one incredibly tough loss. The Bulldogs faced a tough season opener against Rhode Island before returning home to face a DII squad from just up the mountains in Lees-McRae.

The story of the Rhode Island game can be summed up in a single word: turnovers. The Bulldogs committed 27 turnovers, only 13 were forced by Rhode Island. As a result, the Rams attempted 19 more shots than UNC-Asheville and scored 28 points off turnovers.

While UNCA did struggle shooting in the first half, the most painful shooting was at the free throw (FT) line: 18-32 (56%).

The truth is that Rhode Island is the better team. They dominated the game, never surrendering the lead, and points in the paint (52) and their bench provided ample support (35 points). Yet not everything was bad for the Bulldogs. They scored 18 baskets on 11 assists and were almost even in the rebounding game. With shots not falling and an abundance of turnovers, UNCA lost 84-60.

The trends from the first game carried into the Lees-McRae game, but hardly at those levels. For example, Asheville committed 17 turnovers, but the Bobcats only had 9 steals, meaning equal parts forced and unforced errors. Team FT% went up, but only to 63%.

UNCA’s shooting improved, though they struggled from long range. Raekwon Miller, who struggled against Rhode Island in every way, shot 5-6, including 3-3 from 3, and 4-5 from the line. The Bulldogs also accounted for 15 of the Bobcats’ 18 turnovers.

Similar to the first game, UNC-Asheville is the better team. They destroyed in the paint, rebounding and points, took advantage of turnovers, and never surrendered the lead.

While I wasn’t able to catch the first game on the A10 stream, I took my usual seat for the Lees-McRae game. I was surprised at the talent of L.J. Thorpe, who did not play against Rhode Island, but he can be a little loose. His alley-oop to Jonathan Baehre was incredible, but in the 6 minutes he played, he managed 2 assists and 2 turnovers. Jalen Seegars also had a great game, scoring 10 points in 19 minutes, including 2-3 from 3 and 4-5 from the line.

On the other hand, Thomas looked off on Monday night. And, just as a note of a slight disappointment for myself, Jonathan Baehre looked a bit slow on his feet. UNCA’s domination really couldn’t be felt until the last 7 minutes of the first half; before then, the game felt closer than it was.

Finally, Vandy. Oh, Vandy. While the Bulldogs hung tough, clutch FT shooting at the end of the game by Vanderbilt kept UNCA from winning. Asheville outrebounded, shot close, and forced turnovers, but also committed unforced turnovers. The good news, as far as team growth, UNC-Asheville shot almost 87% from the stripe, a marked improvement.

A poor shooting night by Teague, but an excellent showcase for Wnuk, 2-3 from 3 and 7-11 from the floor. Also, Baehre showed his range with 1-1 from 3 and 2-2 for the game.

Finishing just short, 79-76 Commodores, UNCA played a good game and, if you believe in moral victories, they should be proud of this one.

Women’s Basketball

The women faced no cupcakes to start the season, but unfortunately were treated like ones when they played NC State. So I’ll skip over that one and focus on the very winnable, but ultimately lost, games against Western Carolina and UNC Charlotte.

Against WCU, the bulldogs played well except one area: shooting, 29% in the first half, 34% in the second half, and 17% from 3 for the game. Having lost key 3-point shooters from last year’s team, it’s difficult to see this one struggle. That said, the only quarter with a substantial point difference was the second. Asheville played hard and had the game within reach before Western closed out for the win.

Coming into Kimmel, I felt like the UNC-Charlotte would be a game of equals. I was not disappointed. However, simliar to the Western game, one bad quarter, this time the third, kept the Bulldogs from grabbing a win. While the game finished 51-47 Charlotte, UNCA had chances closing out the game to take the lead. Shooting again doomed the team: 34% for the game, 45.5% from the line, and 12.5% from 3 (this was really Wall, the only Bulldog to score from long range, who shot only 28.6% herself).

Outside of shooting, Bree Fitzgerald fouled out. After she left the game, a signifcant difference could be seen. The backups, Jordan-Brown, Esdah, and Fisher, couldn’t generate the defensive presence that Fitzergald held over the opponent. The 49ers outrebounded the Bulldogs by 8.

Hopefully, being this close to the “W”‘s will help as the women grow through the season.

Around the Big South

A couple things of note for the conference.

First, the Big South will be adding teams next year in USC Upstate, a staple of the Asheville schedule for some time, and Hampton University, an HBCU located near Newport News, VA.

Second, two notes on our men’s basketball competition. Gardner-Webb put up a good fight before losing to Miami, 77-45. Liberty beat Wake Forest 79-66, driving one Deac fan to the brink.

 

Hope to see everyone at Kimmel on the 22nd when the Men face Monmouth.

GO BULLDOGS!

 

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!

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!!!