Brian's Epilogue: Looking For Clues
Updated: Apr 6
My next-to-last quiet court of the season after Liberty's NIT first-round win. If only I'd known what would come in the following hours. (Photo: Brian Wilmer/House of College Hoops)
How can I pretend
That from the start until the end
I’ll get to keep the things I love
Hootie and the Blowfish, Change
I’ve started to get into a bit of a flow with these season-ending epilogues. Every year – and I’m closing out my 11th now – I venture into a week-long hibernation and essentially clear my brain to write a love letter to college basketball, the ruler of my four-plus most recent months. I’ll pour way too many words into it, though the 131 days and the amount of games of which I’ve lost count that I covered during that time certainly merit them.
This letter may read a bit more like a Dear John letter than a love letter, though. Let me explain.
I seem to have epiphanies in my car. To put a finer point on it, I seem to have epiphanies while on long, solo drives from my hometown to wherever I’m currently living. One of them came after visiting home following my mom’s death and heading back to Nashville. The other came not even a month ago.
I spend time going back to cover games at Liberty whenever I get the chance. Many people who will read this probably hate Liberty. I get why you do. It doesn’t mean I agree with your reasoning – read the last few words of my Twitter bio for more on that – but I acknowledge it. Without going into too much detail, I essentially grew up with Liberty. I lived within 10 minutes of it. I snuck into the Vines Center to play pick-up games. I received my high school diploma there. Let’s just say there’s some history between the institution and me.
When the Flames were awarded a home NIT contest – against no lesser than Villanova – I made the call to go up there and cover the game. Tip time was at 9:00. I drove up there that day, covered the game, spent time with some great friends, had my chair fall off a riser – I still insist this wasn’t my fault – and did postgame media. I then left Liberty Arena, trudged across a cold and nearly empty campus to my car, then drove three-and-a-half hours back here. I walked in the door at 3:30 in the morning, when I had stuff to do six hours later.
On the drive home, I drank an energy drink, threw on a podcast that would get me most of the way home, and stared ahead into the darkness. Despite the podcast’s best intentions, the voice in my brain drowned out the voices on my speakers. It said the same thing I said during that first long drive after seeing off my mom.
“I can’t keep doing this.”
Year number 11 started for me in a familiar place under unfamiliar circumstances. I’ve been to Queens University of Charlotte’s Curry Arena before – years ago – to cover a game, but six months after the school announced it would join Division 1 and the ASUN, I pulled up a courtside seat to watch the Royals do battle with Marshall University.
Queens trailed by double figures in the second half, but it didn’t matter. Kenny Dye – the author of so many great moments in that building – put together arguably the greatest, scoring the eventual winning bucket in an 83-82 Queens win. It was that night where I was introduced to Queens assistant coach Charlie Wilson, who was the acting head coach that night – more on that later – and Dye. Charlie is such a good dude and has worked like crazy to get where he is.
There’s a bit of the same in Dye, a persistent – if not a little undersized – guard from Jacksonville, N.C., which is known more for Camp Lejeune than for producing star basketball players. Dye stayed the course at Queens and carved an incredible legacy for himself. The fifth-year senior almost summed up his entire time as a Royal with one quote after he hit that game-winner.
“That feeling … I don’t really feel what happens until that buzzer goes off and I see everybody rushing me,” Dye said. “That’s the best part about it. I don’t think there are too many guys – not trying to be cocky, but that’s just confidence in my game – that are gonna stop me from getting to my spot.”
I hate to break this to you – or remind you, if you’re a long-time consumer of the epilogue – but the book has been written. We all know how this ends. Kyle Whelliston, the voice behind The Mid-Majority – who we all consider a colleague, an inspiration, or – at the least – a friend of the underdog, as are we – said it years ago.
“It always ends in a loss.”
It eventually ended in a loss for Kenny, Charlie, and the Royals. That loss, though, even felt a little like a win for Queens. But we’ll get back to that.
A few days later, I pulled back up at Winthrop Coliseum, which has been one of my homes away from home for 11 seasons. Sure, some of the faces have changed – Pat Kelsey is gone, as are long-time cohorts Michael Owens, Adarrell Gadsden, and Alex Zietlow, among many – but there are few places where I am approached by more people to talk about more stuff. It’s always a pleasure.
The Eagles took down an average D3 team that night, paced by star Kelton Talford. Talford – whom I covered as a prolific scorer and occasional 6-foot-7 guard at nearby Great Falls High School – got a chance to show what he had learned from years of practice battles against now-NC State standout DJ Burns and tallied a double-double. Talford turned in a stellar year – to the surprise of few – and will apparently spurn the surely numerous requests to transfer to a bigger program and return to the Eagles. He should combine with the fierce Chase Claxton, joyful baller Mike Anumba, and the other returning stars the Eagles will feature to make for a pretty strong 2023-24 club. This past season, though – well, more on that in a bit.
After another Queens victory over my hometown Lynchburg Hornets the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I got to see an old friend for the only time this year. I ventured up to Charlotte to watch the 49ers take on Presbyterian. It’s admittedly become a bit more of a struggle to get to Halton – traffic has significantly worsened since The Before Times, access to the building isn’t as easy as it once was, and all of those things that are explanations, not excuses – but the 49ers shone on this day. Charlotte held Presbyterian under 40 points until after the under-4, winning by 27 in a pretty dominant effort.
The 49ers actually had it end in a win – for a bit, anyway – as Charlotte went on to win the CBI in a nail-biter against Eastern Kentucky. I covered EKU as part of my ASUN coverage for the site this year and think the world of coach A.W. Hamilton, and I knew they wouldn’t go away without a fight. The lasting image of that victory, though, was Charlotte assistant Vic Sfera and the huge smile on his face. I was really happy for Charlotte, but especially for Vic. I haven’t gotten to see him as much as I did before, now that Charlotte has moved media off the floor and into the stands. I’m happy for Vic, Katharine Palmer, and my many friends in University City.
That win became a loss, though, as Charlotte’s top two players – legacy star Brice Williams and big man Aly Khalifa – entered the portal. They’re both getting significant attention from big programs, and they’ve certainly earned those opportunities. As Charlotte heads off to the American Athletic Conference next season, though, there are more questions than answers.
I then covered three Winthrop games – the Eagles went 2-1 – before I made my first trek to Gardner-Webb on the season. The battle between Tim Craft and LeVelle Moton lived up to the billing, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs finally ended up on the positive side of a close outing. Gardner-Webb beat NC Central, 72-70, but Moton’s club employed a defensive change to the 1-3-1 that flummoxed the ‘Dogs.
“They switched defenses and we just fell apart. That was unfortunate,” Craft said. “We didn’t handle the 1-3-1 defense very well. Three straight turnovers and they tie it. They’ve got all the momentum.”
The game told the story of this year’s Gardner-Webb club. The ‘Dogs experienced their share of close results – on both sides of the ledger – which we’ll get into more later.
Days later, Queens had another wild result in its own building. Another first took place in Curry Arena, as Austin Peay helped the Royals break the seal on ASUN play. Queens trailed, 63-47, with 10:43 to play – only to gradually come all the way back and knock off the Governors, 81-77. The Royals held Elijah Hutchins-Everett and Sean Durugordon – who had 40 combined points at the time and are each now in the portal – without a bucket over that final 10:43. Austin Peay’s coach, Nate James, was also removed after the season.
Oh yeah – Dye got the key rebound in that game, too. His quote about the team’s approach to its comeback told the story of its patience and tenacity in its maiden D1 year.
“One more push. One more push,” Dye said. “We know if we can get one good push each media, we’ll be alright. As long as we can get 4-to-6 points each media and get three good stops, we’re gonna be alright.”
Kenny was correct more than once.
2022 then offered a heck of a final act. Winthrop hosted Asheville in the latest edition of their storied rivalry on New Year’s Eve, and the game didn’t disappoint. Kasen Harrison etched his name in the storybook between the Eagles and Bulldogs, hitting a game-winner that brought Winthrop all the way back from 15 down at the under-16 media to get the victory.
Asheville was 9-6 at the time, sitting level with Winthrop at 1-1 in the Big South. Asheville coach Mike Morrell seemed – I say seemed because I didn’t get to talk to him after the game – legitimately mad. The Asheville players seemed mad. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. The Bulldogs would lose just once more over the next two-plus months, though. I should have asked Mike if that game helped turn the tide for his club this year. Maybe I eventually will.
We’ll talk more about Mike’s club later, though.
2023 proved quite busy in its early days. Some highlights:
Winthrop hit 79 percent of its first-half tries in an early-January tilt against Presbyterian. Still, one Damoclean quote from that 82-72 result over Presbyterian loomed: “As a coach, the things that linger with you are that six-and-a-half minutes where we lost by 14 points, which isn’t what you want to do,” Winthrop coach Mark Prosser said.
I saw eventual ASUN champion Kennesaw State play at Queens, a game that ended in a 76-67 Owl victory in Curry Arena. KSU played a physical contest and really hamstrung the Royals by forcing turnovers and fouls. Queens played KSU really well, a preview of their eventual win at KSU Convocation Center and the near-miss in which they almost knocked the top-seeded Owls out of the ASUN tournament on KSU’s home deck in the league semifinal.
Radford took out Winthrop on the Eagles’ home floor, dictating the tempo from stem to stern in a 66-52 decision in the Coliseum. Radford had not won in Rock Hill in three years, and the Highlanders put away that streak without much doubt.
Queens dropped a wild, 92-91 contest to Central Arkansas in which Dye again ripped the final try. This one didn’t go down, however. Grant left no doubt about the plan after the game. “He’s earned the right to take the big shots. He took it. This one just didn’t fall.”
In the middle of January, I took a trip I have long wanted to take. I ventured to blisteringly cold Hickory, N.C., to turn in the first Division 2 coverage our outlet has ever published. I visited Shuford Arena, the home of the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears – ironically, a former South Atlantic Conference partner of Queens – to watch L-R take on Emory & Henry.
The Wasps are quite the interesting story. I’ve gotten to know E&H coach Ben Thompson over the season, and it was cool to watch him coach. He’s a good man and an up-and-coming young leader. His father coaches alongside him – I wrote about that in the story – which was a cool sight. On the other side, L-R had a good group of athletes that played a fun brand of basketball. The Bears got much of their attention this year from an exhibition win at Louisville before settling into SAC play.
The Shu is a fun venue. I had seen it years ago when it was adorned with the treacherous wooden bleachers. The entry lobby looks quite reminiscent of former NAIA District 26 cohort Presbyterian’s Templeton Center, with two sets of entry doors straight ahead, an unassuming concession stand, and a hallway full of offices and small rooms. Once you walk through the doors, though, you see the trappings of a bigger program – gigantic video boards on either wall, new seating with modern, industrial railings, and enough capacity to hold a Division 1 crowd.
Emory & Henry is no slouch, either, The Wasps announced a week or two prior to this piece that they will become Emory & Henry University in 2024 as part of their Elevate in Excellence plan. They, too, may someday take a trek to Division 1.
Either way, it was an honor to tell that story. I hope to get back out to cover more D2 basketball at some point. Knowing a lot of administrators and coaches in our surrounding D2 leagues, I can tell you that they put forward a fun, engaging product and do so with one eye on the court and the other on the community.
As January carried on, so too did I. Some more highlights of the year’s first month:
Presbyterian almost pulled off a miraculous finish at USC Upstate. The Blue Hose inbounded the ball inches from their bench with three-tenths of a second, tossing a nearly-perfect lob toward the bucket. Trevon Reddish-Rhone’s tip attempt painfully circled away, though, with Upstate claiming a 61-60 decision.
“We set a back screen. We had kind of a false moment into a back screen,” Presbyterian coach Quinton Ferrell said. “We had to tip and grab it, so we just tried to get it at the rim. (Forward) Kobe (Stewart) made a heck of a pass. Trevon got his hand on it. It just rimmed out."
Gardner-Webb claimed its first victory at Winthrop in over nine seasons. It was just the second time the Runnin’ Bulldogs have won in the building in Tim Craft’s stellar career at the helm in Boiling Springs.
“I told the players it was kind of like I heard the voices of our former players,” Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said. “We’ve shed a lot of tears in that locker room over the years. It was great to celebrate one. I just think it’s a great win for our team.”
Another attempt to overcome a long-time icy streak in the Coliseum went by the boards, as Charleston Southern – who had won one time in Barclay Radebaugh’s 15 trips to the Winthrop deck – succumbed to the Eagles, 76-64. I didn’t get to talk to Barclay after that game – insert Twitter blocking joke here – but I did get to again see returning Charleston Southern SID Taylor Chitwood. Taylor came back from Randolph-Macon to CSU, and while it’s always a joy to see a familiar face, it’s a particular joy to see Taylor’s face.
Queens slipped past FGCU – on a defensive stop, nonetheless – in an 84-82 victory. The Royals had struggled for the first time in the careers of Grant or his players, and the club really got back to basics on the defensive end to try to right the ship. The squad’s theme of “Embrace Adversity” proved itself in that contest. Much like Mike earlier, I’d love to find out from Grant what kind of carry-over effect that win over FGCU had for his school.
Radford ventured to Spartanburg about 36 hours after one of its biggest wins of the year. The Highlanders knocked off defending champion Longwood in the Dedmon Center on ESPNU, then trekked to the Palmetto State to take on the Spartans. The sides engaged in a total rock fight of a game, with the score level at 52 with fewer than 10 seconds remaining. Bryan Antoine caught a pass from Jo Jeffers, squared toward the bucket – from inside the ‘E’ in the ‘Upstate’ logo – and calmly knocked down the shot to give Radford a 55-52 win.
I can’t stop the pages as they begin to turn
And I find my inspiration
Like a candle, the flame gets blown away
Let’s stop there for a minute.
That was a great day of catching up with my Radford friends. I got to sit next to the Highlander bench and watch Darris Nichols coach all day – that was an experience, and more on Darris later – and briefly catch up with Radford radio voice Rick Watson. I also got to spend about a half-hour before the game with Radford Hall of Famer and SID emeritus Mike Ashley.
I don’t even remember at this point how long Mike and I have known each other, but every time I see him, I feel a smile come to my face. Whether we’re talking about Roanoke Times legend Randy King filing copy from the parking lot of a strip club in Myrtle Beach, the Dedmon Center roof caving in, or even dubbing an arena “The Biscuit”, he’s one of the easiest people in my life with whom to converse. I always learn something. Always.
That might have made that day’s conversation all the more painful – or illuminating.
I’ve gone over it on my Medium page – I won’t relink it here – but that day probably planted at least a little bit of the seed for what you read earlier. It was also probably the genesis for what you’ll read later. I should emphasize that none of that is Mike’s fault – not that he would see it that way – but there are conversations in your life that find whatever dark corners you have and shine spotlights on them. This was one of those.
I saw Mike again at the Big South tournament in Charlotte. We talked about seemingly everything during the course of those days – except for that conversation. I may never bring it up to him. I suppose he’ll get the idea when – and if – he reads this, though.
February awaited after that conversation, and I somewhat brought that one on myself. I covered 10 games in the year’s shortest month, and added a lot of driving to the mix. There were a lot of great games in that month, though. Let’s look at some of those highlights.
Kasen Harrison did it again for Winthrop. The Eagles trailed Longwood by 17 at the half and as many as 19 during the game, but after a methodical charge in the second 20, the game was knotted at 74 before the final possession. Harrison drove to the basket, put a high-arcing shot off the backboard, and won the game. Harrison’s confidence – from my vantage point, anyway – seemed to grow exponentially through the year. That confidence mixed with his humility to create a budding star.
Upstate dominated Charleston Southern, leading for greater than 99 percent of the game. Dave’s message to his team was about courage, and it showed. Upstate avoided committing fouls and limited second-chance points. CSU’s two leading scorers on the night, Tyeree Bryan and Claudell Harris, combined for 34 of the Bucs’ 60 points on that night in Spartanburg.
Eastern Kentucky squeezed past Queens, 84-80, in Charlotte. The Colonels scored a staggering 58 points in the paint against the Royals – even without point guard and defensive stopper Cooper Robb – which prompted Grant to say after the game, “I think (Eastern Kentucky’s size) is the standard in this league. It’s not gonna be in one shot in recruiting, but over time, we’ve gotta make those adjustments to get there.”
Two days later, Bellarmine put up a wild 56-point second half to edge Queens, 88-84. Ben Johnson put up 29 points in 24 minutes in the game.
Upstate knocked off Winthrop, 79-70, in a wire-to-wire effort at Winthrop Coliseum. The Spartans had never swept Winthrop in a season since joining the Big South before that victory. The Eagles barely worked the Spartan advantage into single digits for much of the second half. Justin Bailey and Jordan Gainey keyed the Spartan offense, as they had done throughout conference play.
Winthrop got back at Gardner-Webb by claiming an 86-78 win in Paul Porter Arena in Boiling Springs. The Eagles shot 73.1 percent in the first half in a dominant victory.
Kenny Dye took the Curry Arena floor for the final time in a contest against Liberty and received the honors he so richly deserved. Unfortunately for Dye, another fifth-year senior star in Darius McGhee scored 24 points in the second half to guide the Flames to an 85-77 win. Liberty started the second half on a 7-0 run, which staggered the Royals. “I think we knew that they had dictated to us a style that we were uncharacteristic in, and we just felt we had to be better on the defensive end,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “You can’t allow Queens to go downhill on you every play. It’s gonna really compromise your defense.”
The next night, ESPNU – and I – visited Boiling Springs as Longwood took on Gardner-Webb. The Lancers won their fifth of six games in claiming a 75-63 final.
Hours after coming back from Gardner-Webb, I then piled into the car to drive to Lynchburg and cover Queens’ final game of the regular season at Liberty. McGhee was held scoreless in a half for the first time since a nine-point effort at Manhattan that marked the lone time he finished in single digits the season prior. That didn’t matter in the end, as the Flames scored a 73-53 win. Liberty held Dye to a combined 6-for-25 over the two nights of that week.
The next morning, I ventured into a cold rain to drive from Lynchburg to Farmville. Despite a stop to inflate a faulty tire – that’s another story for another time – I got there in enough time to tour Longwood’s new Joan Perry Brock Center, which is literally next door to Willett Hall. My umbrella broke during the visit – that’s nobody’s fault but my own – but it was a great tour. The building should be a destination on Longwood’s campus, with no detail ignored. In fact, there is even an area for recruits to take selfies for Instagram and Twitter.
Following the tour, I wandered back over – through the side door – to Willett. The Lancers played the final regular-season game in their 43-year-old building on this day, Willett will live on as a practice and educational facility, but the next regular-season game will be in the new building next door. Asheville closed the building in a battle of the top two teams in the Big South. The game meant both nothing and everything.
Longwood raced out to a hot start and energized the home crowd, but Asheville eventually won the battle. The Bulldogs shot 74 percent in the second half and claimed a 10-point win. One might have expected Mike to be happy, but the other part of his answer was something I found surprising.
“Obviously, to come in here in this environment – like I told the guys, there’ll never be another game played in here,” Morrell said. “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.”
I stayed around for a little while after the game – even after the coaches and administrators had left – and enjoyed the quiet. I’m trying to learn to do that more. As the night wore on, though, I ventured outside into the cold – the rain had thankfully stopped – and literally closed the door on my 11th regular season of spilling ink about college hoops.
A few days later, March arrived, as did the Big South tournament. I’m not sure what I expected as I trudged through Charlotte traffic that Wednesday afternoon and made my way into The Biscuit (RIP). Asheville came in as the top seed – by a mile – with a bunch of teams bundled neatly in the middle and a couple toward the bottom. Campbell had unceremoniously slipped to the seventh seed and that first day – much more on them in a bit – the victim of the multi-car pile-up in the middle of the standings.
As usual, let’s just give a kind of game-by-game recap with a little bit of bonus commentary.
It ended in a loss for High Point in the first game of that first day, as Charleston Southern overcame a double-digit halftime deficit at the interval and took out the Panthers, 72-70. Shortly after the game, High Point dismissed its coach, G.G. Smith, and its two stars, Jaden House and Zack Austin entered the portal. Creighton associate head coach Alan Huss has now taken the reins at High Point, but House (already committed to Rhode Island) and Austin appear destined not to join him.
It then ended in a loss for Presbyterian on that first night, as the Blue Hose dropped their 18th-straight contest – and eighth overall by three or fewer possessions – in a 68-63 decision to the aforementioned Campbell Camels. PC hit a solid 45-plus percent from both the field and beyond the arc, but could not get past the Camels. The two players tied for second place in scoring from the night – forward Owen McCormack and guard Jalen Forrest – both entered the portal shortly afterward, as did star forward Winston Hill. McCormack and Hill are in as grad transfers, and both are incredibly bright dudes with big futures inside or outside of the game. Forrest should also be a hot target as the portal heats up.
The loss then came for Charleston Southern in the first quarterfinal Friday afternoon. The Bucs raced out to an 11-0 lead, but Asheville did as it did all year and calmly rode out the storm. Drew Pember did Drew Pember things, putting up a 29-point, 16-board effort and setting Big South tournament records for numbers of free throws attempted (24) and converted (22). The Bucs were also hammered by the portal after the game, as their top three scorers from the day (Tyeree Bryan, Tahlik Chavez, and Claudell Harris) all departed for the portal. I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s really hard to keep guys in the CSU program. That’s another story for another time, though.
The second quarterfinal saw the season end in a loss for Gardner-Webb, as Jordan Gainey hit what I described as – and stand by – a “miracle” three. That bucket represented the final three of Upstate’s six points in the final 10 seconds and gave the Spartans a 77-76 decision over the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Upstate coach Dave Dickerson joked, “What just happened?” as he sat down at the dais to do postgame press. I think most of us felt the same way. Gainey said of the shot, “I saw space in the corner, took one dribble and a side step, and got all my legs that I had left under me to just get it off.”
The evening session started with the season ending in a loss for defending champion Longwood. The Lancers fell, 81-68, in surprising fashion. Griff Aldrich – more on him, my relationship with him, and “the incident” that I think everyone in the press area saw in a second – had his value to the community and school rewarded after the season with a 10-year contract that will keep him there through the 2033-34 season, should he choose to stay that long. He had a great quote after the game, however. “It’s disappointing – but pretty incredible – to say Longwood won 20 games and we’re disappointed.”
Okay, I wanted to put this off, but let’s address the incident.
Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan came in to do press after that game, and seemed to lock eyes with me as he took his seat. He gave me a constant near-smirk for a bit, just a day after mentioning they were facing off with “your buddy” the day prior. It was enough to where seemingly everyone back there noticed, and it became the topic of the rest of the day. I joked on Twitter about being stared down by a coach for the first time, and I’ll admit it was … weird. I honestly wondered if Kevin was mad, or what.
The next day, Kevin shook my hand and explained he was joking with me because he knew that Griff and I had a good relationship. It’s true that I think a lot of Griff – probably as much for off-court stuff between him and me as anything on the court – but as I told Kevin, “everybody is my buddy, Coach.” It was good to iron that out – and I believe him – but one more word.
I also think a lot of Kevin. I got a voicemail from him after Media Day this past season that also worried me – probably irrationally so – that asked me to call him. I called him and we had a really good conversation, in which he thanked me for my coverage and said some really nice stuff. It brightened my day. I covered the final game his predecessor, Robbie Laing, coached. I also covered his final game in the Big South.
There, it’s addressed. Moving on…
Radford then dealt Winthrop a loss to end the Friday quarterfinal session. It was a bit jarring to see both combatants from the prior year’s championship game fall in consecutive games – especially in the quarterfinals – but that’s how it went. Winthrop’s loss was somewhat of a microcosm of its season, as it trailed by double digits at the halftime break and stormed back in the second half, only to fall short. I still think brighter days are ahead for the Eagles, but that game resembled so many I had seen throughout the year.
Saturday saw the season end – temporarily – in a loss for Upstate. Asheville clipped the Spartans, 66-62, with Pember and Tajion Jones pairing up to score 41 points and snare 16 boards. Gainey had yet another try to square the contest with fewer than 10 seconds remaining, but the contested look clanged away. Upstate coach Dave Dickerson called the loss “shameful,” but I think that was more because it was a shame for his kids and not because there was any shame in losing to Asheville.
The Spartans then had it actually end in a loss in the first round of the CBI, succumbing by five points to top-seeded Indiana State as the 16th seed in the tournament. Young stars Trae Broadnax and Justin Bailey, are – for now – back next season, and Dave seems upbeat about where the team can go. They'll have to do so without Gainey, however, as he entered the transfer portal after the championship game.
Radford then became the next victim of Campbell’s sizzling weekend, as the Camels cut down the Highlanders on a game-winning shot from Anthony Dell’Orso. The 72-71 decision put Campbell into its third championship game appearance in seven seasons, as the Camels limited Radford star DaQuan Smith to three second-half points following a 19-point first-half performance. It was good to see my guy Shane Nichols over the two days in Charlotte. More on why he was there in a second.
And then, Sunday came. Asheville claimed its first Big South title since 2016 – ironically, they won that 2016 title on Campbell’s home floor – by finally solving the puzzle that was the Camels. The Bulldogs trailed by 11 with just over 10 minutes remaining – only for Tajion Jones to hit 7-of-8 shots and combine with Pember to score 31 of the team’s final 32 points in a 77-73 decision. There’s not a lot from that day that didn’t make it into my copy – I took Alex’s suggestion the year prior and wrote stories from both sides, and though it made for more work, it told a much better and more holistic story – but it ended in a loss there for the Camels. The mood was understandably maudlin as the Camels did their press session, but it was incredible to watch that team come together. Unfortunately, Dell’Orso and forward Jesus Carralero entered the portal shortly thereafter.
Let’s talk about Asheville for a bit.
I have a number of memories of Mike’s time up there – some funny, like his ongoing relationship with Alex and me, and others really sobering, like the conversation I had with him following his challenging first year. Much of the conversation Mike and I had after that first season was recapped in my story about the Bulldogs, so I’ll limit my already way-too-many words here. The juxtaposition of the looks on his face during and after that first season and the smile on his face following that tournament is still striking.
Mike is a class dude. A lot of people have opined on his abilities as a coach – even Mike – but his and Asheville’s redemption arc are incredible stories. Chris Womack from WLOS television in Asheville put together a great documentary on Mike and the Bulldogs, and I cannot recommend enough that you watch it.
It ended in a loss for the Bulldogs in the tournament, as they fell to UCLA. The result was obviously disappointing, but it took none of the luster away from the wonder of the season and the long ascent Asheville took from 27 losses to 27 victories. Though Tay’s eligibility has elapsed, word recently came out that Pember would come back for another season in Asheville. This is welcome news, because the league Player of the Year is returning, and because Drew is a great kid from a great family.
To close out the Big South portion of my season, I got a text from Mike the day after the tournament. He said some wonderful stuff, and I need to acknowledge that here as I did with him via text. I appreciate that with everything going on, he took the time to text me.
Oh, one more Big South note.
We found out after the conference tournament that it would not return to Bojangles’ Coliseum for 2024. The operators of the venue decided not to extend their contract to host the tournament. This is a sad development for the league, the players, and the fans. It’s also a blow for those of us who cover the entire thing, because having it right there in one central site makes it so much easier to just set up shop and focus on the action, instead of the constant drives, adjustments, and other issues. The league will hold meetings later in April to figure out what to do with the 2024 tournament. All I can really do is cross my fingers that something workable comes out of those meetings.
Before I get to the NCAA tournament, let me address one thing from the conference tournament.
I mentioned seeing Shane at the Big South tournament and his talking to us in the media sessions after the game. As much as I loved seeing Shane, the circumstances around which I saw him were not ideal.
I’ll try to keep this as short as possible, but it needs to be said.
Radford coach Darris Nichols was suspended for the end of the regular season and the tournament after a DUI arrest. He then returned for Radford’s CBI run, which ended with a semifinal loss to eventual champion Charlotte. I didn’t address it much at the time. I largely didn’t address it because it wasn’t my business. I probably should have covered it more as a news item, but I didn’t. Executive decision on my part, I guess.
I saw Rick in the hall at the tournament and talked to him quite a bit about Nice and asked how he was doing. He mentioned that he was really beating himself up over what happened – maybe that’s why I didn’t report at length on it, because I knew he would punish himself much more than I ever could – so I reached out to him and told him I was thinking of him. I was. No lies detected.
I come from a family with multiple alcoholic members. I don’t drink. Anyone who knows me knows this. I should say that it’s not my place to judge, punish, or to do anything other than what I did.
A similar thing happened with Grant at Queens earlier in the season. I went about it the same way. Grant and I didn’t have the relationship then that we have now, or I would have done the same with him. Grant served his suspension – as did Nice – and that’s where it should end. If either of them were to have this happen again, I may look at it differently, but I think they’ll both use it as a learning opportunity and move forward.
I was also asked how both guys would discipline their players going forward, given that they both had their issues this past season. Without having talked to their teams, I would imagine that they would both be able to move forward as teachers and coaches, and could use themselves as cautionary tales if their players ended up in a similar situation. They were punished, they served their punishments, and anything else is between those guys, their employers, and their teams.
Then, seemingly both all at once and glacially, four months came down to four games on a cold, rainy day in Greensboro three days after the NIT game I referenced. I walked into the Coliseum for the first time since 2009 – and caught some playful grief in the DMs about that long absence from a person who knows who they are – and trudged to the sixth row of the media overflow seating to cover first-round regional action.