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Summit reached: Asheville completes long climb, wins first Big South title since 2016

Asheville celebrates its 2022-23 Big South tournament championship. (Photo: Asheville Athletics)

CHARLOTTE – “We’re here because we failed.”

Asheville coach Mike Morrell often says he’s not a quote machine, but that is one hell of a piece of insight from a coach who lost 27 games in his first year as a college head coach.

In fact, let’s stop and revisit that team for a bit. That story informs this one.

“I know a lot of coaches in this room have been through it, and I went through it last year,” Morrell told me before the 2019-20 season. “When you’re used to winning and when you’re used to going to the NCAA tournament on a personal level, yeah, it’s a punch to the gut a little bit to have to take 27 losses. My hope is that it developed a ‘chip on their shoulder’ type of mentality in our team and one that we can really learn from.

“I’m thankful for it now, and I’ll be a hell of a lot more thankful for it (in 30 years),” Morrell continued. “I couldn’t write enough things down. I didn’t have enough wrinkles in my brain to be able to try to comprehend all the things that I could have – and should have – learned last year. It was a great growth experience for me as a coach. To be in nine NCAA tournaments and then get your butt kicked is a humbling experience. I’m really thankful for it -- and thankful that our guys went through it -- because there’s gonna be some roses that bloom on the other side of it.”

Four seasons later, the fortunes have completely reversed. 27 losses became 27 victories. Though just two faces remain from that challenging first year, those two faces have proven incredibly integral to the Bulldog program. Morrell helped assemble and lead the talent that took the court in Charlotte Sunday, while Tajion Jones became the leading scorer in the program’s Division 1 era and was a first-team all-conference performer in his final year with the Bulldogs.

Sunday, Asheville trailed Campbell, 56-45, with 10:05 remaining. Jones erupted at that point, knocking down seven of eight tries over the final 10 minutes and tallying 19 of his 24 points. Big South Player of the Year and eventual tournament MVP Drew Pember added 12 in that period, giving the pair 31 of the team’s final 32 points as Asheville overcame a lead as large as 14 points and knocked off Campbell, 77-73, to win the school’s first Big South crown since 2016.

Jones was the second-leading scorer on that 2018-19 side, scoring 10.3 per game. Jones’ ascension has largely mirrored that of his team; he went from 10.3 in his first year to 14.7 in the 2022-23 campaign. In the process, he has become a beloved and trusted teammate who has left a tremendous impression on everyone he has encountered in the program.

“No one’s more deserving of that moment than Tay,” Pember said. “He was here when they won four games. He helped me come here. He’s been clutch all year. A lot of times, everyone thinks that I’m gonna get the ball. I want Tay to get the ball. He’s been phenomenal. It’s a testament to his hard work and what he’s been doing all year for us. I’m happy for him because he stepped up in probably one of the biggest moments of his career.”

“All that I said to myself was that I can’t lose this,” Jones said. “The rim opened up for me once I hit a couple shots and it just went from there.”

Morrell praised his team for its embrace of Jones and the leadership he provides.

“The cool thing for me with this team is that they allow me to acknowledge Tay. He deserves that,” Morrell said. “We were the only two people who were here that year. I do think it’s worth acknowledging as many times as anyone will listen. He has chosen UNC Asheville more than any player or coach ever. He chose to come here. He chose to stay here. He chose to come back here. That’s special in the day and age that we’re in. I don’t know who’s writing the book of UNC Asheville this year, but it’s a hell of a story. With what just happened and for it to be really on his back is just really special.”

That book to which Morrell refers may end up being just as much of a self-help tome as a basketball volume.

“They’re gonna hang two banners in Kimmel Arena. That’s hard to do,” 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 last year in the first round. These guys were devastated.

“I’ll give our administration and (athletic director) Janet Cone a ton of credit. They allowed us to go to the CBI, and I’m telling you, that was – to me – the single biggest change that I saw in these guys going into the offseason. They felt what it was like to win and move on in March. You can’t duplicate it until you get into that arena and feel it. We’ll go to the NCAA tournament when the time comes, we’ll talk about it when it comes, and we’ll do our best, because that’s all we got, man – just our best. Our best is good enough.”

Oh, and about those lessons and roses from earlier…

“You don’t leave the University of Texas to go be a head coach and win four games. That ain’t the plan,” Morrell said. “That’s also why we’re here, in my opinion. I was very fortunate that I had people like our athletic director and people around me that just believed in me – maybe more so than I deserved at the time. You don’t get here on your own, man. Coaches get too much credit, in my opinion. You could also argue that they get too much blame.

“I learned that I personally need to be healthy in order to be my best for our team and our program,” Morrell continued. “I learned I’m gonna fail a lot, and these guys are gonna fail a lot. Our ability to respond is everything. I’ve just had really, really good support. I’m gonna be very imperfect and so are our players. I didn’t build this program. This program was built well before any of us got here. Tajion’s redshirt freshman year was a Big South championship team, because great coaches came before me. We just needed to get it back where it rightfully deserved to be. That was a hell of a challenge. It’s quite a day.”

Asheville (27-7) got 29 points and eight boards from Pember, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Jones added 24 and eight caroms of his own, earning him all-tournament honors. Fletcher Abee contributed 11 on the strength of three early triples. The Bulldogs hit 49.1 percent (27-for-55) from the deck Sunday, putting home 39.1 percent (9-of-23) from distance. Asheville hit 14 free throws in 21 tries (66.7 percent). Pember hit 10-of-12 from the line Sunday, marking the 17th time he has attempted 10 or more free throws this season.

The Asheville offense also tabulated 1.222 points per possession on 63 trips. The Bulldogs committed turnovers on just 15.9 percent of their possessions, leading to 13 Camel points.

Asheville now awaits its NCAA assignment. The Bulldogs will find out their destination and opponent as part of Selection Sunday next weekend.


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