The Big South has been one of the more exciting conferences no one seems to be talking about in mid-major hoops this season, and within it, there’s a hidden gem—the UNC Asheville Bulldogs. They head to Charlotte as the Big South regular-season champions and will have the top overall seed for the tournament slated to begin March 1.
While the 22-7 overall record, which includes a 14-2 record in a tough Big South is nice, the job is not finished yet. Head coach Mike Morrell, who is in his fifth season at the helm of the Bulldogs, now has them in position to make a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he took over a program he had to build virtually from scratch.
Despite falling in heartbreaking fashion in the Big South Tournament to Charleston Southern on a buzzer-beater last season, Morrell felt momentum for a big 2022-23 season had already begun.
“It was a tough exit to the Big South Tournament,” Mike Morrell said last summer. “I thought we started to turn things around in the CBI. [We got] a win over a really good Stephen F. Austin basketball program in the opening round of that tournament and then had to turn around and play a strong Northern Colorado team, and [we] got beat. But I thought we did some nice things in that tournament that have carried over to the off-season and will give us a chance to have some momentum going towards 2022-23.”
Leadership and Trust
Leadership has been huge. For example, in UNC Asheville’s 86-79 win over perennial Big South power Winthrop, the Bulldogs led as much as a 31 early in the second half but saw that lead cut to four late in the game before ultimately prevailing.
The win avenged one of Asheville’s two conference losses, a 62-60 setback to Winthrop. The Bulldogs at times played beautiful basketball, while at others were lured into some of the extra-curriculars that all great rivalries have. That would eventually fuel Winthrop’s near-miraculous comeback, and the Bulldogs certainly didn’t help themselves with three technical fouls in the second half.
Despite Drew Pember, one Asheville’s go-to-scorers, fouling out, Morrell’s reliable veterans came through in the end. Taijon Jones, who was playing his league record 140th game, hit a key 3-pointer moments after Pember’s disqualification to give the Bulldogs a 73-61 lead with just 2:33 remaining.
Then he connected on four key foul shots down the stretch to help secure the win. Jones finished the night with 15 points, which was second to only leading scorer Pember’s 23.
The Bulldogs experienced similar close late-game situations without Pember in their season-opening win at UCF in double overtime as the senior forward fouled out of that game as well.
Following the Winthrop game, I witnessed Morrell talking with his captains—Pember and Jones. Morrell spoke in a tone with love and care, not anger despite the team’s poor play in the second half. A word frequently mentioned during the passionate delivery was “championship,” which the Bulldogs now have in the regular season title.
It was a seminal moment for the Bulldogs as they entered the game coming off a 76-70 loss at USC Upstate. Morrell wanted his team to respond like a championship team should.
In the first half, he probably couldn’t have asked for a better performance, especially on the defensive end as UNC Asheville held the Eagles to just 16 points. It was the lowest total the Bulldogs had held a Division I opponent to in a half since March 4, 2016.
After playing so well defensively in the first half, the Bulldogs surrendered 63 points in the second.
The Bulldogs have since gone on to win three straight: at Presbyterian 76-72, against Radford 63-54 and against Gardner-Webb 75-63 in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000 fans at Kimmel Arena.
Pember poured in another team-leading performance with 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against Gardner-Webb, which led to his most-recent Big South Player of the Week accolade. Jones and Jamon Battle scored 16 apiece, and Nick McMullen added 10 on a perfect 5-for-5 effort from the field.
All of it led to the Bulldogs cutting down the nets after the game to celebrate UNC Asheville’s eighth regular season conference championship and first since 2018.
They have two games remaining (against Charleston Southern tonight and at Longwood Saturday) before the Big South Tournament.
Morrell’s new challenge will be getting the Bulldogs back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2016 and fifth time in Asheville’s proud hoops history.