Big South Favorites Play Final Season in Justice Center
UNC Asheville's men's basketball team has started the season strong with a win against SEC's Auburn in one its first games of the season - - an encouraging change from last season's slow start.
A year ago, the Bulldogs got off to a tough start as they lost their first six games and struggled to a 3-12 record at the mid-point of the season. The team turned things around in the second half of the year as it went 12-4 and finished in fourth place in the Big South Conference standings. The Bulldogs advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament for the fourth straight season and finished with a 15-16 overall record.
“We struggled early in the year last season,” said Bulldog Coach Eddie Biedenbach, who became the Big South’s all-time winningest coach in both overall and Big South Conference games last year. “We had some injuries, and we were young, and sometimes it just takes times to come together.
“But to our guys’ credit, they did come together and we turned things around,” added Biedenbach. “We made a great run and if we had won a couple of those early games or one or two late we could have finished a lot higher in the conference standings.”
The Bulldogs have definitely learned their lessons and are making changes this year. After a resounding win in exhibition play over Belmont Abbey, Asheville stunned SEC foe Auburn to open the season, 70-69 in overtime. The Bulldogs trailed by 16 at the half and by 12 with four minutes left but outscored Auburn 15-3 to send the game into overtime. Asheville scored first in OT and never trailed in pulling off the shocker.
The win was even more special because it was the first game ever played in Auburn’s brand-new $93-million arena.
“We really did a great job battling back at Auburn,” said Biedenbach. “Our guys kept grinding things out and just wouldn’t be denied. I was so proud of them for finding a way to beat a tough team in a tough environment.”
The Bulldogs hope to have plenty more wins like that this season. Asheville was a preseason pick to finish in third place in the Big South this year. Pre-season publications have picked the Bulldogs anywhere from first to fifth place.
“The Big South is as balanced as I’ve ever seen,” said Biedenbach. “We have a chance to win it this year but so do six other teams. We need to stay away from injuries and play well on defense to have a chance to go back to the NCAA Tournament.”
Asheville returns four starters from last year’s club with three of them with a chance to score 1,000 career points this season. Senior forward John Williams is already the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots with 209 and needs just 60 points for 1,000 in his career.
Junior guards J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey both need a little more than 300 points to reach the 1,000-point plateau this season. The duo form one of the best backcourts in the Big South Conference. Also back is 6’ 11” sophomore center D.J. Cunningham, who led the Bulldogs in rebounds last season and was fifth in the league in blocked shots.
The Bulldogs will be tested early as they’ll be on the road for seven of their first eight games, including contests at UNC Chapel Hill (Nov. 23) and Georgetown (Nov. 27).
“We have a tough schedule early but those games at Auburn, North Carolina and Georgetown will prepare us for the rigors of the Big South,” said Biedenbach.
This will be the final season of basketball at Justice Center, as the Bulldogs will move into Kimmel Arena next year. The UNC Asheville Athletics Administration is having a countdown at each home game and will have a special ceremony at the final home game on Feb. 26 against Radford to celebrate the 47-year history of Justice Center.
“We want every year to be special, but we especially want to make the last season of Justice Center to be a great one,” said Biedenbach.
—Mike Gore, Associate Athletic Director