Bulldogs take the Big South basketball title and head back to the Big Dance
The UNC Asheville Bulldogs have done it again. In front of 3,205 roaring fans at Kimmel Arena, the Bulldogs defeated the Keydets of Virginia Military Institute, 80-64. With the victory, the Bulldogs secured their second straight Big South men’s basketball title and earned another trip to the NCAA March Madness tournament.
The season began with the kind of expectations that create tremendous pressure on coaches and student-athletes. The Bulldogs were picked to win the Big South Conference in a coaches’ poll. They attracted a visit from the national basketball powerhouse, the Tar Heels of UNC Chapel Hill, to play the first game in the new Kimmel Arena. And the Bulldogs had a returning core of seniors: Matt Dickey, J.P. Primm, Chris Stephenson, Quinard Jackson, and junior Jaron Lane.
They had no excuses, and in the end, they didn’t need any -- taking the regular season Big South title by going 16-2 in conference play, and winning the championship tournament with three double-digit wins.
“This year, we wore the target, and other teams pressured us,” said Head Coach Eddie Biedenbach. “We never went into a game where the other team didn’t give us their best shot emotionally, effort-wise and the games started to get more physical. I’m so proud of our guys. They’d get knocked down, there were hard fouls, but they didn’t let it bother them. They just played basketball. They gained that maturity this year.”
Biedenbach said he usually coaches with an underdog mentality but had to change that this year. In the title game, 7th seeded VMI was clearly the underdog, but they gave the Bulldogs all they could handle well into the second half. Then, with the score tied at 47, Matt Dickey, Big South Conference Player of the Year, triggered a 9-0 run with a three-pointer, two free throws, a steal and an assist. The Bulldogs never were threatened after that.
Jeremy Atkinson, the junior transfer student who has been a key player for the Bulldogs all year, scored 18 points to lead four other teammates in double-figures. But defense was once again the key for the Bulldogs, who recorded 12 steals for the second consecutive game. J.P. Primm, who notched 16 points, 7 assists and 4 steals, was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament. He was joined on the all-tournament team by Atkinson and Stephenson.
Dickey credited the Kimmel Arena fans for creating “the best atmosphere.” In the final minutes, the student section resounded with the chant, “We are Asheville!” Said Primm, “there were some times I dribbled but couldn’t hear the ball bounce – that’s how loud it was.”
When the final buzzer sounded, fans streamed onto the floor and formed a joyous throng at center court along with the players and their families. Dickey and Primm, who have been teammates for four years, and roommates for three, embraced with tears in their eyes.
Biedenbach is savoring his last few weeks with this senior-led team, and his backcourt of Dickey and Primm. “They have done so much for this program since they were freshmen,” said Biedenbach. “I remember the first day. I talked to them, and they said they didn’t know if they were going to play much; they just wanted to do what they could to help. They have done so much on and off the court for each other and their teammates. If people only knew the hours they have put in to become the players they are….”
The Bulldog senior core has only a short time left together, but they have another chance to catch the eye of basketball fans across the country as March Madness gets underway. Last year, it was Dickey hitting a three-pointer with 10 seconds left in regulation, and Primm hitting free throw after free throw in overtime to give the Bulldogs the victory in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. Let the music begin once again – the Bulldogs are going back to the Big Dance.