“It felt a little surreal there at the end. But we were up 14 with about a minute to go and I thought, ‘This is going to happen,’” said Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick, UNC Asheville women’s basketball head coach.
And it did. Shortly after the buzzer signaled the end of the Bulldogs’ 23rd win of the season, news came that Liberty had lost its final game. This left Kirkpatrick’s team alone in first place at the end of the Big South Conference season, and top seed in the conference tournament, March 10-13 at Kimmel Arena.
The first-place Bulldogs, who finished 16-4 in conference games, were picked to finish eighth in the Big South preseason coaches poll. That was understandable – the Bulldogs had won only 20 games in the prior two seasons combined, and in 2012-13, Kirkpatrick’s first season as coach, the Bulldogs went 2-28.
Kirkpatrick and her players say they have stayed focused on the process – rather than results – the whole time, which made looking up at the scoreboard as the Bulldogs clinched first place such a special experience.
“I’ve been here through the lows of the lows, and, right now, this is the highest of the highs,” said Paige Love, one of only two seniors who were part of that 2-28 team. Love scored 15 points in the final game this season. “Turning this program around is something I’ll always remember.”
“Our goal in the spring of 2012 when taking over the program was to make it competitive in the Big South as quickly as possible,” said Kirkpatrick. “That has required the efforts of more than just this years' team and staff. There are many other players and coaches in the three seasons prior that impacted the success that we had this season and I am thankful for each one of them. This year's team is without a doubt a special group because they are the most unselfish group of young ladies that I have ever been privileged to coach. They have never cared about a stat line or who gets the credit more than they cared about being there for each other and owning the process.”
And the Bulldogs’ work isn’t finished. In a very happy coincidence, Asheville was chosen to host this year’s Big South Championship Tournament. With a berth in the NCAA Tournament that is theirs for the taking if they can win the Big South tourney, the Bulldogs will get to play in front of their home fans.
Their high seed entitles the Bulldogs to a first-round bye, and their first game will come in the quarterfinals at noon on Friday, March 11. Big South Tournament tickets are available at the Kimmel Arena box office and at uncabulldogs.com. The tournament games Friday-Sunday also will be streamed live on ESPN3.