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Asheville gets huge day from Abee, takes win in final game in Willett Hall

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

Longwood will begin play next season in the Joan Perry Brock Center after playing its final game in Willett Hall Saturday. Willett Hall opened in 1980. (Photo: Brian Wilmer/House of College Hoops)

FARMVILLE, Va. – There are a million trite sayings around endings in life. I’ve likely used a thousand of them.

On one hand, Saturday’s final game in Willett Hall meant nothing. Asheville had long ago claimed the top seed in next week’s Big South tournament. Longwood earned second place with a tough victory at Gardner-Webb Thursday night. It almost had – on that hand, anyway – the feeling of an AAU game, as Asheville coach Mike Morrell described it after the contest.

On the other, it meant everything. 43 years of Longwood basketball history happened in this building. Students have watched games here through good seasons – and through quite the opposite. Not even 20 years have passed since this school ascended to Division 1, where it was greeted with a 1-30 record in 2004-05. There’s Ron Bash. Mike Leeder. Shirley Duncan. Jerome Kersey. So many names have written their legacies here.

Just steps away, the Joan Perry Brock Center stares with a watchful eye on Longwood’s basketball present, while preparing to become the home of the Lancers’ basketball future. All of the hallmarks of the program Longwood has built on and off the floor are there – gorgeous architecture, student seating near the floor, a permanent maple playing surface, and every player amenity one could hope for awaiting both the men’s and women’s teams. It will be a source of pride for the community and student body, as Willett has been for four decades.

The interesting juxtaposition took center stage Saturday.

As the showers fell outside, the memories showered inside. Greats from years past like Kevin Jefferson and Carmille Barnette took their victory laps on the floor where they earned their spots in history. Video packages honored moments in Longwood lore – including “The Moment,” where Lancer fans had revealed to them their destination for the first NCAA Division 1 tournament berths in men’s and women’s program history. The sold-out crowd remained in full throat from an hour before the opening tip until they all filed out of the building – perhaps a little slower than usual.

Oh, right – there was the game.

Asheville withstood it all – the environment around them, a sluggish start, and the assessment of a technical to its coach – and answered as one would expect from a champion. The Bulldogs got 20 points from Fletcher Abee, who hit 7-for-8 off the bench and 4-for-5 from deep, and shot 73.7 percent in a blistering second-half performance to turn away Longwood, 76-66. That’s the “micro” story amongst the bigger “macro” story.

“I’m very proud of them,” Asheville coach Mike Morrell said after the game. “I think everybody thinks I planned to get that technical. I didn’t.

“I just thought it was a complete team effort. Obviously, to come in here in this environment – like I told the guys, there’ll never be another game played in here. You can decide which side of this thing you wanna be on. This environment was fun. This is fun. I wish every game was like this. They do a terrific job up here.”

The amazing part of Abee’s huge day is that it almost didn’t happen. The junior from Morganton, N.C., did not start the game, but tallied nearly 26 reserve minutes. His minutes arguably shaped the game, which was not lost on Morrell.

“Fletcher didn’t feel great yesterday. He didn’t even practice. He didn’t come up until this morning, because he needed to get some sleep,” Morrell said. “That’s why he didn’t start.”

Though he didn’t start, Abee repeatedly knocked down clutch shots, including a three that gave his team the lead for the first time in the second half at 43-40. The shot was a tremendous boost to his Bulldog teammates.

“(The shot) was really big, because it gave us the lead,” Morrell said. “Fletcher’s just that guy where you look at the stat sheet most games and it’s like nine or 10 (points). You watch the film – man, if you could quantify what’s on the film, there’s no more important person to our team than him. He’s just got a lot of cheerleaders, because guys understand that.

“It’s one thing to stand up on the bench (and cheer),” Morrell added. “Anybody could have energy in here today, when you’ve got most of the crowd pulling against you. I think it’s very, very genuine. He earns it. If he doesn’t lead the league in charges, he’s gotta be up there. There’s nothing too small for him to do. For him to have that type of game, the guys love seeing it.”

Another reason Abee’s performance loomed so large is that the Lancers – for much of the day, anyway – slowed the production of Player of the Year candidate Drew Pember. Pember was 1-for-7 at one point in the game, before finally rebounding and hitting his final three attempts.

“I thought he did a really good job of not forcing the issue today,” Morrell said. “I told him – I think it was at the second-to-last media – I don’t think you’re gonna win for us today, but you’re gonna have to let these guys do it. They were being really aggressive with him. We needed him to find a way to get to the free throw line or get high-quality shots in the last six minutes of the game, and he did that. He also got Fletcher the bucket where he could have forced the issue and he just went into a dribble-handoff and Fletcher flung it in.”

Longwood led by five at the half after being fueled by the crowd and solid play through the first few segments. Caleb Burgess connected on a bucket before the interval that provided the margin. In a situation like this, what kind of speech must Morrell have given at the half?

“It wasn’t that we went into halftime and made some huge adjustment,” Morrell said. “It was just like, ‘Yo, man, guard the ball. I don’t know what else to tell you. If you guard the ball, we don’t have to help as much.’ If you start helping and getting into rotation against them, you ain’t winning.

“It was very positive (in the locker room). There wasn’t – listen, I ain’t a good enough coach to go in there and make all these adjustments. I told those guys that I think I went a stretch of about 10 minutes in the second half where I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t.”

As for Longwood, coach Griff Aldrich offered a frank assessment of his team’s play and how it stacked up against the regular-season champ.

“Credit to Asheville. They showed tonight why they won the regular season,” Aldrich said. “They continued to make play after play after play. Abee had a great night. That’s what you need to be a championship-level team. You’ve gotta have different guys be able to come out on a different night and steps up, and I thought they did that.

“I was disappointed in our focus on execution. I thought the activity level was there, but there wasn’t enough purpose from our guys. I thought that over the last couple games, we’ve had a little more focus on execution and trying to win every single possession. I thought we didn’t have that tonight.”

Aldrich also noted the second half performance, in which Asheville outshot his side by over 40 percent.

“I thought it started on the offensive end. I thought our shot selection was really poor,” Aldrich said. “The problem is that if you lack discipline on one end, there’s not a magic force field you run through at half-court that makes you disciplined on the other end. Undiscipline breeds undiscipline. I just thought we were out of sync. We didn’t execute at a high level tonight. You’re not gonna beat a championship-level team if you’re not executing at a high level.”

Abee’s 20 guided the visiting Bulldogs. Asheville (24-7, 16-2 Big South) got 19 points from Pember, who persevered through a fierce effort against him all day. Nick McMullen tabulated a double-double, scoring 10 points and squeezing 12 boards. Tajion Jones also added 10 for Asheville. The Bulldogs shot 54.5 percent (24-for-44) on the game, hitting a tremendous 73.7 percent (14-for-19) in the second half. The Bulldogs have claimed the top seed in the Big South tournament and will face the winner of eighth-seeded High Point and ninth-seeded Charleston Southern at noon Friday in Bojangles’ Coliseum.

Isaiah Wilkins paced the Lancers with 17 points on 4-for-9 from the field and 8-for-9 from the line. Fellow seniors Leslie Nkereuwem and DeShaun Wade added 12 apiece, combining for 10 boards. Longwood (20-11, 12-6) hit 42.6 percent (26-for-61) of their shots from the field, despite connecting on just 33 percent (10-for-30) in the closing stanza. The Lancers will do battle with the winner of seventh-seeded Campbell and 10th-seeded Presbyterian Friday at 6:00 in their postseason lid-lifter.

Despite the cold rain outside and the result inside, optimism and enthusiasm are – justifiably – bright around the Longwood program.

“I think it was a special day today,” Aldrich said. “I’m glad that a lot of fans and alumni were able to get back and see and celebrate not only where the program is currently, but the teams and the players from the past. As I’ve said before, it’s the end of a chapter, and exciting chapters await at the Joan Perry Brock Center.”


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