Winthrop upset gives boost to confident UNCA men’s basketball

Ashley Tysiac, Sports Writer

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Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville Athletics
Sophomore Trent Stephney moves the ball up the court in a win over Charleston Southern in January.

Following the UNC Asheville men’s basketball team’s narrow 80-84 loss at undefeated Winthrop on Jan. 28, social media within the realm of college basketball doubted the abilities of the Bulldogs.

When sophomore Trent Stephney and other players scrolled through social media prior to the rematch between the two teams on Jan. 29, people behind the comfort of their screens seemed to all have come to the same conclusion: no way could the Bulldogs bounce back and beat Winthrop, a team that hadn’t lost since Feb. 22, 2020.

Yet Stephney and his teammates knew they had the motivation and confidence to hand the Eagles their first loss of the season.

“They were pretty much saying on Twitter that we couldn’t beat them,” Stephney said. “It was an upset for them, but it was a game where we knew we could beat them.”

Led by Stephney’s 13 points, the Bulldogs proved many wrong with their 57-55 win over undefeated Winthrop, bouncing back from their prior loss and snapping the Eagle’s 21-game winning streak.

UNCA went on a 10-1 run in the last four minutes and showcased a strong defensive effort throughout the game to secure the win. The Bulldogs held the Eagles to just 31.9 percent on field goal shooting, and Winthrop couldn’t get a shot off in the final seconds to muster out a win.

The win marked UNCA’s first win over Winthrop since 2018, as well as the first road win over the Eagles in 10 years.

The team even received praise in the media that people didn’t show them the day prior. Famed ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale called UNCA his “team of the night” on Twitter.

UNCA men’s basketball Coach Mike Morrell said he couldn’t help but smile as his team knocked off one of the top mid-major teams in the country.

“To even get a chance to play, to be able to see the joy on their faces and just the excitement to win any game, much less a game over one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the country, was really cool for me as a coach to see,” Morrell said.

Especially following the loss against Winthrop the day prior, Morrell said he saw a spark of confidence within his team, something they’ve shown consistently throughout the season.

“To find a way the next night, I feel like that really shows the confidence of our group,” Morrell said.

For one of the first times all season, UNCA fielded a healthy roster, something Stephney said helped them stay sharp against Winthrop. With the addition of last season’s leading scorer Devon Baker to the roster in late January, among others, Stephney said the team feels more energized going into the later part of the season.

“I think everyone is more confident since everyone is back on the roster,” Stephney said.

It’s this type of confident energy that Morrell said characterizes his team, despite playing an abnormal, condensed schedule consisting of a two game series against conference opponents.

“I love their energy,” Morrell said. “But we’ve already played 14 conference games and we’re just at the beginning of February. So we’ve played a lot of games in a short amount of time.”

Yet following the historic win, the team’s practices came to an abrupt halt. The UNCA athletic department announced a pause on men’s basketball team activities on Thursday due to COVID-19 protocols. According to a statement from the department, the suspension comes as UNCA continues to follow local and NCAA safety guidelines in order to keep athletes, coaches and other athletics personnel healthy.

“We have been prioritizing the student-athletes’ long term health, even if that means having to put things on pause for the meantime,” said Kelly Montague, UNCA athletic trainer.

UNCA postponed the two game home series against Campbell set for Thursday and Friday, with the schools working to reschedule the games for a later date. The Bulldogs still plan to take on USC Upstate on Feb. 11 and 12 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, followed by the Big South conference tournament in early March.

Now UNCA has to focus not on winning and losing, but responding to the challenge COVID-19 has thrown at them. Morrell said in terms of competition, the team has already grasped how to answer positively to both wins and losses on the court.

“I think the thing that we’re really learning is that we’ve got to respond regardless, no matter what result we get, in order for us to be ready to give us the best chance to win,” Morrell said.

Going into the last weeks of conference play, UNCA sits third in the conference rankings, and Winthrop still holds the top spot. But looking ahead — assuming the athletic department lifts the pause on team activities — Morrell said he hopes his team can use the Winthrop win to maintain the confidence levels they’ve had throughout the season and potentially hand the Eagles another loss come the Big South tournament.

“The Winthrop win counts just as much as the High Point win that we had in December,” Morrell said. “They all count the same. We don’t want to get too high or too low right now, but also understand that they need to feel good about themselves and what they’re doing because they are doing some really good things.”