An overwhelming favorite to win the Big South Conference Tournament, UNC Asheville more than lived up to its expectations with an 80-64 win over VMI in the championship game Saturday. As a sold-out crowd of 3,205 was roaring their approval, Kimmel Arena celebrated two firsts – the 2012 BSC title and the first court-storming by hundreds of excited students.
The victory, a school-record 24th of the season, gave them the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year. The five Asheville starters each scored in double digits and harassed the Keydets (17-16) into 20 turnovers and 39 percent shooting. The fact that the senior-laden Dogs won on their new home court, Kimmel Arena, made this one more special.
“We’ve always been the underdog, so this year we really had to change our thought process because this year there was always the target on our backs,” UNC Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team over the whole season. What they have done off and on the court all season long to get them to this point. Defense was the difference in the game and our guys were solid on the defensive end. VMI did a great job of coaching their team to get them here today and they had a great run this week. That’s why we won the tournament: because of defense.”
The Bulldogs only led by one at halftime after briefly trailing by four points. But Matt Dickey, the Big South player of the year, provided a key spark midway through the second half that put the Bulldogs ahead for good.
He had 10 points in the second half and added six assists and made all seven free throw attempts.
“I wasn’t shooting as well as I liked, but they found me in the corner and I was able to knock that one down and that was big,” Dickey said. “We were able to go on that run because of our defense and how we play as a team.”
Biedenbach called Dickey and tournament MVP J.P. Primm “two of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. J.P. played football in high school and he worked with Matt to toughen him up and Matt worked with J.P. to keep him on the straight (path),” Biedenbach said with a laugh.
Keith Gabriel led seventh-seeded VMI (17-16) with 12 points. The Keydets were looking for their first NCAA berth since 1977. They had to win three tournament games to get to the finals, including an upset of No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina.
“I felt like we were playing with house money all week,” VMI coach Duggar Baucom said. “First and foremost, congratulations to Asheville. They have had a tremendous season and played well. Give credit to Coach Biedenbach and their coaching staff. I thought the difference in the game was all five of their starters were in double figures and we barely had anybody in double digits. I am proud of my guys. This week has been remarkable for my kids, for my staff and our fans. I think we just ran out of gas today. It was special for our guys, especially for our four seniors.”
This is the last year the Big South Championship will be held at the top remaining seed’s home court. Next year the tournament will move to an as-yet undetermined neutral site.
“It was wonderful to win here at home,” said Primm. “I told Matt (Dickey) this would be the best time of our lives. “And it is. We were hugging and crying after the game. What a wonderful, wonderful moment. We were out there celebrating (with our fellow students) crying tears of joy. The fans were great. There were times I couldn’t hear the ball bouncing on the floor it was that loud.”
“These seniors went through this last year, but this is my first time going to the NCAA tournament,” said junior forward Jeremy Atkinson, a junior college transfer who led Asheville with 18 points and added six assists and five rebounds.
Dickey finished with 15 points, six assists and five steals, while Primm had 16 points, seven assists and four steals.
The Bulldogs broke open a close game early in the second half, thanks in large part to Dickey. From a 47-47 tie, Asheville scored nine straight points, with Dickey contributing a 3-pointer, a pair of free throws, an assist and a steal.
After a jump shot by Quinard Jackson, Dickey hit a 3-pointer and added two more foul shots. Dickey then slashed through the lane and dished down low to Jackson, who sealed his man off for an easy layup to give the Bulldogs their biggest lead of the game at 56-47 with 11:44 left. The Keydets could never get within six points after that and the Bulldogs began to pull away.
“We called a timeout to try to diffuse the run, but I looked at them in the huddle and the guys didn’t have anything left,” Baucom said. “That’s the first time this year that I’d seen that. They were just really fatigued.”
That gave Asheville a comfortable lead with 10 minutes remaining, and the Keydets – looking to be the lowest seed to win the tourney – didn’t get closer than six points the rest of the game.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys,” said coach Biedenbach, taking his third team in 10 years to the Big Dance. “I can’t tell you why, but I’m happier about this one. Maybe it’s because we did it at home, maybe because we felt some pressure from being picked to win and everyone expected us to win.”
“It’s definitely different,” said senior forward Chris Stephenson. “(Assistant coach Nick) McDevitt told us, “Let’s be the most dominant Big South champion, and I think we did that. We won three games (by a combined 68 points) and showed on the court we were the best team.”
“Last year was special because it was the first one for us, but this feels a lot better,” said Dickey. “We win on our home court in front of this great crowd and we’re going back to the NCAA tournament in my senior year. I just couldn’t be happier.”
Asheville is the League’s first back-to-back champion since Winthrop won four-straight from 2005-08, and is the first No. 1 seed to win the title since 2009.
As the first team in the country to earn a spot in the NCAAs, the Bulldogs will have to wait a week until Selection Sunday before finding out who, when and where they play.
Asheville’s two other NCAA trips began as No. 16 seed in Dayton, Ohio, the play-in game in ‘03 and as part of an expanded first round last season. The Bulldogs won both games in Dayton in overtime before losing to No. 1 seeds, Texas in ‘03 and Pittsburgh last season.
SEASON NOTES: Dickey was in double figures in scoring for the 30th time this season…Asheville has now reached eight Big South Conference title games and is 4-4 in those contests…the Bulldogs finished the year 15-2 at Kimmel Arena this season…the crowd of 3,205 at Kimmel Arena was the second largest crowd of the year to watch Asheville play..the victory was Asheville head coach Eddie Biedenbach’s 20th tournament win, tying him with former Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall for most tourney wins.