CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Coming off a 4-27 season in which UNC Asheville had one of the youngest rosters in the land, head coach Mike Morrell desperately wanted for his hard-working team to see the fruits of its labor. Tuesday night, that labor bore fruit, and helped his club pull off arguably its most significant victory in Morrell’s tenure.
The Bulldogs placed five scorers in double figures and flummoxed Charlotte, forcing 22 turnovers in an 83-75 victory before an announced crowd of 3,324 in Halton Arena.
“This is a big win. You win these types of games in the offseason,” said Morrell. “I have so much respect for (Charlotte) Coach (Ron) Sanchez and this program, because they’re in a very similar stage as we are. (They’re) in year two and trying to really build something. Both programs have great tradition, and have had to kind of build it back.”
Charlotte (3-4) maintained a precarious lead in a back-and-forth first two segments, before the tide quickly changed. Asheville (4-2) wrested control of the period with an 11-1 burst, fueled largely by Taijon Jones. The sophomore Tennessee native tallied eight of his 15 in the opening stanza during the run, putting ahead the Bulldogs by as many as nine. The 49ers bounced back as the half waned, using a 7-0 run to knife the deficit to a single point. Asheville held serve, however, taking a 34-30 lead to the interval.
Asheville ran out of the locker room, tallying another 8-0 burst to stretch the visitors’ lead to 12. Following a Ron Sanchez 30-second timeout, Charlotte charged back, eliminating the margin and drawing level with a 12-0 burst over a three-and-a-half minute period. The 14th point of the run, a Malik Martin layup, completely erased the deficit. The 49ers forced four Asheville turnovers during the burst, after the Bulldogs had committed just six first-half miscues.
“I had to call two timeouts,” stated Morrell, with a bit of a laugh. “Coty Jude hit the three coming out of that (second) timeout, which was something that we kind of drew up to try to get him a clean look, and we got him one.”
The Jude triple drew the game level at 50, and after a bit of a tug-of-war, the visiting Bulldogs again showed their mettle. The 49ers went on a stretch where they connected on 10-of-11 shots, but still could not manage to regain the lead from Bulldogs once they seized it back. A 9-3 burst pushed the Asheville lead back to 11, and despite a Milos Supica layup slicing the advantage to seven, Charlotte never again drew closer, as the visitors salted away the game at the line.
“Our message to our players has been (that) you must prepare to win to even give yourself a chance when that time comes around,” said Morrell. “In our preparation, we really try to focus on ourselves more than the opponent. Obviously, when you’re playing Jordan Shepherd, and (Malik) Martin, and (Amidou) Bamba, and guys like that, you’ve gotta scout them, but I think if we focus on ourselves more than the opponent, we really can try to get better at what we’re trying to do.”
The Bulldog defense resembled that of the days of their Big South dominance, running variations of the full-court press after many made buckets, and forcing half of the 49ers’ turnover totals via steals. Freshman guard Trent Stephney, who was called upon to play significant minutes due to foul trouble from several Bulldog guards, recorded four of those steals and dished out six assists.
“I’m just proud of him. He is the most coachable player in our program, and when that occurs, you allow good stuff to happen for you,” commented Morrell. “For that to be (his) sixth college game, (and) for him to have six assists, five points, and four steals … (I’m) very proud of him. I’m more proud of him on the defensive end. I thought he really frustrated their guards.”
Jones paced the Bulldogs with 21, connecting on 8-of-10 field goal attempts. Jude registered a season-high 16, knocking down 4-of-12 from distance. All-Big South performer DeVon Baker tallied 15, despite being limited to 24 minutes due to foul trouble. Lavar Batts added 12, while LJ Thorpe scored 11.
Shepherd led all 49er scorers with 20 points on an 8-for-14 effort from the field. Three 49ers joined him in double digits, with Cooper Robb notching 14, Martin 13, and Supica 11. Charlotte shot 60.7 percent in the second half (17-for-28).
Both teams next hit the road for Saturday contests. Asheville will travel to regional rival Western Carolina for a 4:00 (Eastern) tip on ESPN+ from the Ramsey Center in Cullowhee, N.C. Charlotte will trek to UNC Wilmington for a 2:00 tilt against the Seahawks in Trask Coliseum. That game will stream over FloHoops.