On Friday night I had visions of grandeur for my plans on Saturday. I was going to go the Big South Championship game at noon and had several options with what to do on the rest of my day. I could have bolted from Kimmel Arena and get to the Civic Center to see the second game of first session of the SoCon quarterfinals. I could then stick around and watch the final session to add on a total of three extra games for the 800GP. I could have also done a dual championship day and rushed down to Macon, Georgia for the Atlantic Sun Championship.
What was I thinking though? That would mean about I would get home around 3 or 4 in the morning with either plan, plus I wanted to do all my recaps on Sunday since I had plenty of work to catch up on this week. I figured there was no better way to end my season than with the Big South title game. The Big South became my passion this season and even though I'll probably end up going to a few NCAA Tourney games, this last game in Asheville should be my final recap of Championship Fortnight.
I knew I was in store for a big game atmosphere when I pulled up to the UNCA campus 50 minutes ahead of the tip and was met with a long line of cars waiting to park. Twenty minutes later I was able to get a spot and was then met with a long line at will call. Ten minutes after that I got my ticket and went into Kimmel Arena. It slowly filled to the brim and we had an easy sellout on our hands.
It was quite a difference in three days for the Keydets who didn't even have their band show up during the quarterfinals yet here we were on Saturday with busloads of cadets who had shown up for the big game. The noise generated from the VMI cadets was overpowering at times and it seemed like they were louder than the UNCA fans in some key stretches.
Not to be outdone though were the UNCA students and fans that brought plenty of energy to the atmosphere on the afternoon. I was disappointed when UNCA's games weren't sold out in the previous rounds, but that wouldn't be a problem on this day.
For all the games in the tournament, they lowered the lights and did alternating player introductions. It seemed silly at times when there were only a few hundred people in the arena, but for today it seemed apropos.
I couldn't be happier with where I was sitting. I didn't buy my ticket until right after I got back from the semifinals on Thursday night. I didn't know if UNCA would be hosting, so I held off and hoped for the best when I ordered. It couldn't have worked out better since I was eight rows up and at center court.
By tip time the place was electric. I was hoping for a VMI upset deep inside, but mostly wanted to see a good competition. Any thoughts that the Bulldogs may have been too overhyped were silenced in a hurry when they scored the first 6 points of the game including two lay-ins from JP Primm.
Duggar Baucom called a quick timeout to settle the Keydets down and it worked as Quinton Upshur sank two 3's to make sure VMI wouldn't get blown away. Jeremy Atkinson scored 5 points after that and had the Bulldogs up 13-6 and the crowd was going crazy. VMI didn't rattle easily and the cadets were the louder bunch after layups from Keith Gabriel and Stan Okoye had VMI down 16 to 15.
Much of the rest of the first half had the same pattern of the Bulldogs bumping the lead to 3 or 4 anytime VMI got within one possession. The dueling battle on the court led to dueling cheering sections. A "Tar Heel Rejects" from the cadets was responded with a "West Point Rejects" from the UNCA students.
VMI had plenty to cheer about with about 5 minutes to go in the half when Nick Gore gave the Keydets their first lead and an ensuing 3 from Keith Gabriel had VMI up 28-24. Asheville switched things up to turn the tide in the Bulldogs favor and started a full court press. It caused several Keydet turnovers and an 8-0 run from UNCA. Everyone was standing by the end of the half, one which saw VMI make a couple buckets and pull within 36-35.
I couldn't have asked for a better back and forth half than what I just saw; Primm continued to be lights out for UNCA while Gabriel was leading his Keydets. I figured Asheville would have another initial surge coming out of the half and was wondering how VMI would be able to handle it this time around.
The half started much like I predicted with five straight points from the Bulldogs, but VMI answered with five of their own to get the lead down to one. The play would be even until the 15 minute to go mark when a Michael Sparks three point play tied the game at 47.
That is when Asheville took control of the game as Matt Dickey and Quinard Jackson scored the next 9 points. You could sense in the arena that the spurt deflated the air out of the VMI fans and possibly the players. VMI got the lead down to 6 on a few occasions, but all of the momentum was on the side of the Bulldogs. Another big push from UNCA had them up 19 with 3 minutes to go. The starting 5 of Primm, Atkinson, Dickey, Stephenson, and Jackson were all working together to pull away.
VMI tried hard and they had their crowd behind them, but it was all over when they went cold from beyond the arc. The seconds wore down and the students started to get in position along the baseline. Asheville dribbled out the ball and court storming began.
A congrats to UNC-Asheville, they deserved the victory and are the best team in the Big South. They won their three games by a combined 68 points and hopefully they'll be able to avoid a 16 seed. I was glad I stayed up in Asheville during the week. While none of the games were all that close, it was fun to see all of the teams in my new favorite conference.
JP Primm won the tournament MVP:
Eddie Biedenbach cutting down the nets:
UNC-Asheville, 2012 Big South Champs
at NORTH CAROLINA-ASHEVILLE 80, VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 64 03/03/2012
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 17-16 (8-10) -- K. Gabriel 3-11 4-4 12; D. Covington 3-7 1-2 7; S. Okoye 2-8 3-4 7; R. Burks 2-4 3-3 8; Q. Upshur 3-8 0-0 8; R. Glasgow 2-4 0-0 4; J. Weethee 3-8 3-3 11; M. Sparks 1-2 1-1 3; N. Gore 1-1 0-0 2; J. Watson 0-0 0-0 0; W. Whiting 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 21-54 15-17 64. NORTH CAROLINA-ASHEVILLE 24-9 (16-2) -- J. Atkinson 7-11 4-5 18; M. Dickey 3-8 7-7 15; J. Primm 6-13 4-5 16; J. Lane 2-5 1-2 5; Q. Jackson 5-6 1-2 11; C. Stephenson 5-9 2-6 13; T. Meyer 1-3 0-0 2; K. Hornsby 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-55 19-27 80.
Three-point goals: VMI 7-23 (R. Burks 1-2; K. Gabriel 2-8; M. Sparks 0-1; S. Okoye 0-1; R. Glasgow 0-1; Q. Upshur 2-5; J. Weethee 2-5), UNCA 3-14 (C. Stephenson 1-2; J. Primm 0-4; Q. Jackson 0-1; M. Dickey 2-5; J. Lane 0-1; T. Meyer 0-1); Rebounds: VMI 28 (S. Okoye 7), UNCA 29 (C. Stephenson 6); Assists: VMI 11 (R. Burks 3), UNCA 24 (J. Primm 7); Total Fouls -- VMI 22, UNCA 14; Fouled Out: VMI-None; UNCA-None.