Asheville uses another big day from Pember to reach first Big South title game since 2016
CHARLOTTE – When times get tough on a basketball court – or in life – it’s always good to have reliable people in your corner. For Asheville, the conference’s Player of the Year and the school’s leading Division 1 scorer – who Morrell jokes is “30 (years old)” – provide a couple of nice security blankets.
Drew Pember and Tajion Jones – those aforementioned security blankets – combined for 41 points and 16 rebounds as part of a winning Asheville effort in Saturday’s Big South tournament semifinal. Pember added a double-double as his top-seeded Bulldogs survived a battle with USC Upstate, notching a 66-62 victory at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“I thought it was a really gutsy performance for our players,” Asheville coach Mike Morrell said after the game. “I didn’t really make a lot of adjustments. Sometimes I’ve just gotta get out of the way and trust them. When you’ve got two guys like this, it makes my job of coaching a lot easier.
“I can’t say enough about how good of a team Upstate is. We’ve had three absolute wars with them. Credit to them. This time of year, it’s going to be a battle.”
Pember has – understandably – drawn much of the attention for the Bulldogs this season, but Jones has drawn his share of accolades. Jones joined Pember on the all-league first team, and a key component to the Bulldogs’ success came over the summer when Jones decided to return for his final year of eligibility.
“This was the vision, but we prepped for it back in the summer. You never know what’s going to happen,” Jones said. “This is the stuff we’ve been working for since the summer. The vision’s starting to come true.”
Morrell quickly interjected to share his version of events.
“The gentleman to his left (Pember) and the gentleman to his right (Morrell) were the two primary recruiters on his returning for his sixth year, so we can pat ourselves on the back for that, Drew,” Morrell joked.
“Thanks, man,” Pember quipped, with Morrell returning a quick “appreciate you” in Pember’s direction.
After a back-and-forth first half that saw Upstate lead by a razor-thin, two-point margin at the interval, the sides embarked on a drama-filled second half that saw five lead changes. Asheville (26-7) led for just 1:02 of the second half until Pember splashed home a triple with 5:44 remaining. The Bulldogs would not again trail – but the result was not without drama.
Jordan Gainey sank a three to slice the Asheville lead to one possession at 65-62 with 55 seconds remaining. Following an Asheville miss, Upstate set up for its final shot to try to tie the game, finding Gainey on a three-point try at the top of the ring with seven seconds remaining. Gainey’s try was contested, though, and harmlessly fell away. Fletcher Abee made a free throw at the other end to put the game out of reach.
“It’s just an unbelievable range of emotions – from the highest of the highs yesterday to the lowest of the lows this afternoon,” Upstate coach Dave Dickerson said. “This hurts a lot, because even though they’re the best team in the conference, I thought we were better than them. I thought we were gonna win the game. It was just an unfortunate loss for our program and for our seniors. We have to regroup and see where we go from here, but it was just a shameful loss and a tough loss for our program and for our guys.
“I thought we had a chance to be one of the best teams in this conference and have a chance to cut down nets. It’s just unfortunate that we’re not going to get that opportunity.”
Pember and Jones were Asheville’s lone double-digit scorers, combining for 41 of their team’s 66. Pember hauled in 10 caroms as part of his 31-point double-double, while Jones hit 4-of-11 to finish with 10. The Bulldogs hit 22-of-55 tries (40 percent) from the deck, putting home 31.8 percent (7-of-22) from distance. Asheville outrebounded Upstate, 39-33.
Trae Broadnax paced Upstate with 16, dropping 7-of-16 tries from the field and dishing three helpers while grabbing five boards. Justin Bailey added 15 on a 5-for-8 performance, contributing three boards and two dimes. The Spartans hit 41 percent (25-for-61) of their attempts on the day, seeing 29.2 percent (7-for-24) of their tries from distance find nylon. Upstate (16-15) outscored Asheville, 10-5, off turnovers.
“Trae’s just come leaps and bounds from where he started the first game November 7th at Duke to where he is now,” Dickerson said. “Justin has a great motor and a great toughness. He can play at all three levels, and turned out to be a great defender as well. If this is indicative of our program, we’re headed in the right direction.”
Asbeville advances to its first Big South championship game since its last title victory in 2016. The Bulldogs do battle with seventh-seeded Campbell for the first time in a championship game since Asheville’s 93-78 victory over the Camels in the 1989 title bout. Game time is set for 1:00 (Eastern), with coverage over ESPN2.