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Saturday, March 8
Asheville off to first dance despite losing record

Associated Press

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Losing record? Who cares? North Carolina Asheville is going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

"This is what we dream about," senior guard Andre Smith said after the Bulldogs beat Radford 85-71 Saturday in the Big South tournament championship game. "To be the first team from UNCA to get to the championship and win it -- it's just great. It's what we worked all summer for."

The Bulldogs (14-16) won with a 28-6 run to end the first half, with dominant inside play and with a big assist from first-year Radford coach Byron Samuels, whose second-half explosion all but ensured the outcome.

Radford had rallied within 44-32 when Samuels started yelling at the officials with 12:30 left. Thirty-six seconds, and two technical fouls later, the Bulldogs had a 7-0 run and Samuels was in the locker room.

"I didn't do anything to help my team tonight," a contrite Samuels said. "I was wrong. I took a situation that should have been about the players and the game and selfishly, I guess, I focused it on myself.

"I apologized to the university, to the Big South Conference and ... more importantly to the players. I let a situation get the better of me."

Samuels declined to say what sparked his anger, but the Bulldogs were long past caring. They never let the Highlanders closer than 10 points again and became the 17th team with a losing record to make the NCAA tournament.

That they did it about 100 miles from the Radford campus, and after going 1-14 on the road this season, that only added to their satisfaction.

"It takes a lot of adversity to make something like this so sweet," senior center Ben McGonagil said. "And we've certainly had our share."

Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said the record is misleading because it includes losses at Connecticut, Oklahoma, Kansas and other national powers -- experiences that helped the Bulldogs prevail Saturday.

Smith led the Bulldogs with 18 points, while Bryan McCullough had 16, McGonagil 14 and 10 rebounds and Chad Mohn and Joseph Barber scored 13.

The Bulldogs came into the tournament on a four-game losing streak, but they beat Elon 68-66 in overtime in the first round, then took out four-time defending champion Winthrop in overtime in Friday's semifinals.

That game ended on Alex Kragel's jumper with four-tenths of a second left, and Kragel had another big shot in the final -- a buzzer-beating halfcourt heave that swished to punctuate the run with an ominous tone.

"We got the monkey off our back beating Winthrop," Smith said. "That gave us all the confidence in the world that we were going to win today."

Raymond Arrington, Aaron Gill and Chris Goodin all had 15 points for the Highlanders, who finished 21-of-59 from the field (35.6 percent) and became the first Big South team to lose four times in the championship.

The Bulldogs had lost three times, twice in the last five years.

In victory, they became an early favorite to play in the NCAA's play-in game on Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, for a spot in the 64-team field.

Asheville trailed 12-6 with 14 minutes to play in the first half, then heated up as four players hit 3-pointers and their defense tightened.

Radford went just 2-for-17 the rest of the half with nine turnovers, and the Bulldogs' huge run gave them a 34-18 lead at the intermission.

"There was a little stretch where we didn't really take care of the ball," Arrington said. "After that, it was an uphill battle."

In the second half, the Highlanders got as close as 68-58 with 4:21 left, but Mohn answered with a baby hook in the lane and Barber added a driving layup with 2:58 to play, again making the lead 14.

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