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UNC Asheville closes late to top Campbell

Ahmad Thomas puts on a clinic with support from his comrades

NCAA Basketball: NC-Asheville at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Asheville, N.C. — Opening conference play on their home floor at Kimmel Arena, the UNC Asheville Bulldogs engaged in a spirited battle with in-state rival Campbell Camels. Atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, a duel between two of the Big South’s stars was elevating similar to the altitude.

It began with a strong start for the Camels. They built an early 20-11 lead on the back of Andrew Eudy, Marcus Burk and Chris Clemons. Passionate fans began to voice their displeasure of the officiating, as well as head coach Nick McDevitt who received a technical. At this moment, with MaCio Teague on the bench with two fouls, senior Ahmad Thomas raised the stakes.

Thomas took control of the Bulldogs attacking the paint, forcing turnovers, and scoring from the mid-post. The Bulldogs take their first lead on a three by Drew Rackley with 5:01 on the clock in the first half. Not to be outdone, Clemons accepted the challenge, responding with acrobatic jumpers and layups. Thomas would finish the first half with 16 points while Clemons notched 17, but the Camels trailed 43-40.

Even with the immaculate individual performances, the level of the game had yet to reach its apex.

Supporting casts are essential when attempting to contain elite offensive talents such as Clemons and Thomas. The defensive effort from UNC Asheville sparked the separation, in particular, the work Kevin Vannatta did on Clemons. The Bulldogs squeezed with tighter hedges on the pick and roll action, kept Clemons out the lane for the most part, and limited him in transition. He didn’t make his first basket of the second half until the 4:47 mark.

Keeping the pressure on, Thomas was efficient in all phases of the game, most importantly getting his teammates involved. He led the Bulldogs with six assists which allowed them to push out to an 11-point advantage.

The Camels would not go quietly into the sunset. Andrew Eudy’s magnificent footwork on the block mixed with Marcus Burk’s offensive attack and deep range shooting from Cory Gensler kept Campbell in striking distance. Trailing by eleven, Clemons darted through the lane, using a nifty crossover leading to an and-one. The Camels swarmed with full-court pressure cutting the lead to two with just under two minutes in regulation.

Following an empty trip by UNC Asheville, Clemons drove hard once again but the layup grazed off the front iron, and there was that man again, Ahmad Thomas to clean up with a strong rebound. MaCio Teague would close out any hope that the Camels had with a sweet running layup to put the Bulldogs back up four.

Behind the 24 point, seven rebound and six assist performance from Thomas was the effect of his will to ignite his teammates and raise the energy in the building. UNC Asheville has now won 20 out of their last 22 Big South home openers and has yet to lose at home this season.