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App State finds success one ‘stair’ at a time

The Mountaineers defeated James Madison for sole possession of first place in Sun Belt in front of raucous sellout crowd

Holmes Convocation Center
App State saw its third biggest crowd with 8,052 fans at the Holmes Convocation Center Saturday.
John Hooper / Mid-Major Madness

On the final Saturday of the opening month of 2024, Appalachian State hosted James Madison before a sellout crowd of 8,052 fans at the Holmes Convocation Center. It marked the third-largest crowd in program history.

In this article, I’ll take a more in-depth look at just how Dustin Kerns has been able to lead the Mountaineer basketball program to this point in just his fifth season as the head coach.

James Madison captured national attention for the Sun Belt by opening the 2023-24 season with a 79-76 overtime win over then-No. 4 Michigan State at the Breslin Center. That was part of what was 14-0 start to the regular-season.

While JMU’s win might have sparked interest in the Sun Belt hoops scene this season, it was App State’s 69-64 early December win over Auburn that kept attention on the Sun Belt throughout much of the non-conference season.

Appalachian’s tough transition

Appalachian State is a program on the rise in mid-major hoops, and though it’s not been easy, the challenge becomes even more difficult with each new marker set. That’s true for any mid-major program, and is especially true for ones without a sustained longevity of success.

“Taking the stairs” is a mantra head coach Dustin Kerns and App State has implemented. It has been an incremental climb. The Mountaineers have won 18, 17, 19 and 16, as well as having made one NCAA Tournament appearance in Kerns’ first four seasons as the head coach.

With its 82-76 win over James Madison Saturday evening, the Mountaineers improved to 17-4 overall. A win at Georgia State Thursday night would be win No. 18, which would tie the most regular-season wins for Kerns with a month still to go in the regular season.

Traditionally, App State has been a hardcore football-driven school steeped in success at every level on the gridiron. For a long time, football’s winning culture has dominated the mountain and surrounding communities.

When Kerns arrived, he embraced football’s successful culture and made social media his friend by promoting Appalachian’s highly successful program. It made Kerns likable and that might not seem like much, but it’s big-time when you’re trying to change a history of program which had just two NCAA Tournament appearances in a 47-year span.

The Mountaineer football team won three straight national titles from 2005-07 and stunned No. 5 Michigan 34-32 to open the 2007 season. It was point of pride for anyone who is an alum or cheers for the Mountaineers on a regular basis.

That would eventually propel Appalachian State onto a bigger platform as an FBS member. In 2014, Appalachian State officially became a member of the Sun Belt Conference on both the gridiron and the hardwood.

In the Mountaineers’ final season in the Southern Conference (2013-14), they went 9-21 overall and 5-11 in the conference. It marked Jason Capel’s final season as head coach.

The man brought in to replace Capel would be former Bob McKillop assistant Jim Fox from Davidson. He struggled and never posted a winning record in his five seasons at the helm.

Fox’s best season as the head coach came in 2017-18 as the Mountaineers finished 15-18, including a 9-9 record in conference play, which was the best for the Mountaineers to date.

The 2018-19 season was Fox’s final season at the helm of the Mountaineer basketball program. The Black and Gold would finish 11-21 overall and 6-12 in the Sun Belt, which was good enough for 10th in the now 12-team Sun Belt. Louisiana Monroe would deliver the final blow to the Jim Fox era in Boone, handing the Mountaineers an 89-80 setback in the opening tournament game. It was time for a change in leadership.

That prior info is to give you an idea of the state of the Appalachian State program when Kerns took over the position. He would take over a program for the 2019-20 campaign with a streak of eight-straight losing campaigns. It appears Kerns has laid the foundation of a good culture in Boone.

The Big Game and Night for App State Hoops

With students tailgating a few hours before tip-off in and around King Street, despite a driving rain, Saturday’s game against James Madison had the feeling of a big-time college basketball game.

About an hour before tip-off, Kerns told me that App State’s crowd vs. James Madison might make the one that celebrated its 69-64 win over Auburn in the non-conference look small by comparison. He was 100% right.

The second-largest crowd in Holmes Center history was the first-ever game in the facility, when the Mountaineers hosted the North Carolina Tar Heels, which drew 8,325 fans and many there for the novelty of the occasion, or to see the Tar Heels, which promptly drilled the Mountaineers, 99-69, souring the season-opener for the SoCon defending champions to commence the 2001-02 campaign and the Houston Fancher era as head coach.

On Jan. 12, 2009, the largest crowd filled the Holmes Dome of 8,350 fans, with most there to see generational talent Stephen Curry of Davidson. In that contest, the Wildcats handled Appalachian as Curry scored a modest 16 points to lead Davidson to a 70-52 win.

Since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2014-15, Appalachian State team had never started a season with an 8-1 or better league ledger. In fact, no Appalachian State team had started a league slate with an 8-1 record since Houston Fancher’s 2002-03 team started the conference campaign 8-1 en route to an 11-5 finish in the SoCon’s North Division. It was good enough for a tie for first place in the division alongside Davidson and mountain rival East Tennessee State.

App State has won 17 of its first 21 games in a season for the first time since 1988-89.

The Mountaineers have now swept the Dukes this season after also claiming a 59-55 win in Harrisonburg 14 days earlier.

In Saturday’s win, App State’s Justin Abson, a 6-foot-9 junior forward from Pompano Beach, Fla., had a record-tying performance in program history for blocked shots. He joined former Mountaineer greats Jeremy Clayton (2004-08) and Ricky Nedd (1990-94) as the only Mountaineers to swat away eight shots in one game.

After falling behind 6-2, the Mountaineers seemingly rolled from that point. App State would seemingly take control of the game and took its first lead on a Xavion Brown jumper in the lane. It led for all but a 2:46 span of the contest.

Following the first media timeout, the App State defense would put together one of its better four-minute stretches of the season, swatting away four Dukes shots, while going on a 13-1 run, which was ignited by a Christopher Mantis triple.

With just under five minutes remaining in the opening half of play, App State’s lead reached double digits when Butler transfer Myles Tate canned a triple to give Appalachian the 29-19 advantage.

Just after the first media timeout of the second half, the Mountaineer defense again forced a JMU turnover in the paint. The quick-thinking Myles Tate helped fashion that turnover into immediate offense, lobbing to CJ Huntley for the two-handed hammer and bringing the crowd to its feet. Huntley had only just entered the game and has been App State’s energy guy off the bench.

A couple of minutes later, Spillers’ one-handed slam off a second-chance opportunity gave the Mountaineers a 47-36 lead. Dunks and blocks highlighted the opening moments of the second half. Appalachian State fans couldn’t get enough, and that kind of defense being played could have even brought a smile to the face of San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator and App State grad Steve Wilks (1987-91).

Just over three minutes later, Spillers would block Raekwon Horton’s 3-point attempt, and Tate came up with the board, and his quick outlet found Christopher Mantis for a wide open triple and a 50-38 lead with just over 12 to play. The ball never touched the hardwood in getting from a-to-b.

The Mountaineer crowd came unglued in its delirium of what was transpiring in the Holmes Center.

With just under three minutes left, Tre’Von Spillers put the bow on the present, as he chased down Donovan Gregory’s long outlet pass and slammed it through, making it a 67-55 game with 2:56. The crowd reached a decibel level of 105–it’s highest of the night.

“Just keep packing Holmes, and we’re going to keep winning games,” App State sophomore forward Justin Abson.

The Mountaineers improved to 17-4 and 8-1 in Sun Belt play. They are atop the league standings and garnered votes in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. The win over the Dukes puts the Mountaineers within three wins of notching the program’s 10th 20-win season in its history.

The Mountaineers had four in double figures, led by Spillers’ 21 points. He was joined in double figures by Gregory and Terence Harcum, who both scored 14, and Myles Tate, who added 10.

Abson, a defensive specialist, nearly had the ridiculous double-double of blocks and rebounds, finishing with eight blocks and 11 boards.