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Asheville Reaches the Big South Mountaintop, Clinches the Auto Bid

In a conference tournament full of thrillers, Asheville clinches its first trip to the dance since 2016.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 Mens Big South Championship Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Beware of the dogs! UNC Asheville defended its regular season Big South crown and is heading to the big dance for the first time since 2016!

“They’re going to hang two banners in Kimmel Arena. That’s hard to do,” Asheville head coach Mike Morrell said. “We got there because we came up short so many times — none more so than on the other end last year versus Charleston Southern in the first round. These guys were devastated.”

As mentioned in the headline, the Bulldogs reached the mountaintop on Sunday afternoon. To reach the top, you have to once start at the bottom. For this program, it was the way they ended last season’s conference tournament.

In the opener, they lost the 5-12 game to the aforementioned Charleston Southern Buccaneers. This season’s Big South Player of the Year, Drew Pember. fouled out on a technical foul with 8:07 left to go and their tournament chances crumbled.

After a regular season title this season and a Charleston Southern win in the first round, the two teams faced off in a rematch to tip off the quarterfinals in Charlotte. Pember had a field day.

He finished that game with a Big South Tournament record 22 made free throws, coupling that with 29 points and 16 rebounds. In the next round against USC Upstate, another double-double with 31 points and 10 rebounds. The big man was obviously out for revenge.

“They give me the ball in pretty good spots. Everyone’s status is the same on this team,” Pember said postgame of Charleston Southern. “I’m a product of a lot of awards but I can do it without Tai and without everyone else. One through 20 in this program, it’s a good group.”

On the other side of the bracket, a Cinderella was forming n the Campbell Camels. It wasn’t the best of seasons for Kevin McGeehan’s bunch, finishing seventh in the league. But, they came into the tournament with a major chip on its shoulder, feeling shunned by the media leading up to the tournament.

They struggled in the opener against Presbyterian but came out on top by five. In the next round, they stunned last season’s champion Longwood behind a dominant second half, 81-68. In the semifinals, the Camels advanced to the championship with a last-second shot by Freshman of the Year Anthony Dell’Orso.

When the two met at the newly affectionally known “biscuit” it was bound to be a battle. They went shot-for-shot in the first half, with the Camels leading by three at halftime.

It looked even better to open the second half, as Campbell galloped out to a 14-point lead with 7:16 to go. That’s when Taijon Jones took over from the field and Pember took over from the charity stripe.

An 18-5 run over the next five minutes cut the Camels' lead down to one. With 55 seconds left to go, Jones hit the dagger that sent the Bulldogs back to the big dance.

UNC Asheville is currently projected as a 15-seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology. With some of the upsets to high seeds across the country, they should move up a seed line or two.