VMI comes up short at UNC Asheville, 89-86

Matt Dickey had 26 points to lead the UNC Asheville Bulldogs, and the VMI Keydets could not take advantage of several key opportunities in the final minute as UNC Asheville prevailed over VMI, 89-86, in Big South basketball action Thursday night at Cameron Hall.

With 28 seconds remaining, Dickey hit two free throws to put Asheville (17-7, 12-1 Big South) ahead by four points, 88-84. Ron Burks then drove the length of the court and scored with 19 seconds to go, cutting it to a two-point margin. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Chris Stephenson was whistled for a foul on Michael Sparks, setting up two crucial free throws for VMI (11-6, 6-6).

Sparks misfired on both, but Stan Okoye grabbed the rebound and put up a leaner, which rolled off the right side of the rim. Burks then cut to the basket, secured the rebound in the air and tried a follow, but it was no good. Stephenson then split two free throws at the other end, and VMI could not score on its final possession as Asheville hung on for the thrilling win.

Perhaps the key stat of the game was free throw percentage, with Asheville shooting 87.5% (21 of 24), while VMI missed 13 free throws and shot 22 of 35 (62.9%) for the evening. Despite that, the contest featured 10 ties and 11 lead changes, as neither squad could get separation from the other.

From the field, it was a tale of two halves, as the Bulldogs hit on 64.3% of their shots (18 of 28) in the first half, but VMI answered with a 16 of 29 (55.2%) performance in the second. Asheville took advantage of a 52-30 edge in points in the paint, and both teams survived a combined 35 turnovers and 46 personal fouls.

Okoye led VMI with 20 points, while Quinton Upshur equaled his career high by scoring 15. Asheville put five players in double figures, with Stephenson trailing Dickey with 19 points. The win ended VMI’s 13-game home winning streak, a run that dated back to January 29th, 2011, a game also won by the Bulldogs.

The game was a back and forth contest early on, with both teams shooting well. After four lead changes in the first 5:13, the Keydets grabbed an 11-7 edge on a Jordan Weethee triple at the 14:25 mark, and maintained that four-point cushion when Nick Gore scored one minute later, making it 13-9, Keydets. Asheville came back to tie the contest, equaling the score at 13-13, and then at 15-all.

The Bulldogs then pulled ahead on a Matt Dickey free throw at the 11:49 mark, and would lead for the next three-plus minutes, until Keith Gabriel tied the game 28-28 with 8:25 remaining in the half. Up to that point, neither team had led by more than five, but Asheville went on a 10-3 run to assume a seven-point margin, 38-31. The Keydets got back within five, 38-33, but the Bulldogs responded with another run, this one 10-2, and went up by 13, 48-35.

VMI scored four of the half’s final six points to account for the halftime margin, 50-39. In addition to blistering the nets for a 64.3% shooting effort, the Bulldogs hit 12 of 13 at the line in the first half (92.3%) while VMI was just 13 of 19 (68.4%).

The Keydets came out strong in the second half, opening the period on an 11-0 run that included a resounding alley-oop dunk by Okoye with 17:17 to play, a dunk that came off an inbounds play. That tied the score, 50-50. Asheville went back ahead briefly, but with 14:39 left, Sparks hit a triple to put VMI ahead, 57-55.

That was the first Keydet lead since 15-13 in the first half, and it was maintained when Burks drilled a three on the next possession. That made it a 60-57 game, and gave the Keydets a 5 for 5 start from three-point range in the second half.

The home team would then hold the lead for the next several minutes, getting a game-high five-point separation twice. The final five-point edge came with 11:15 to play on an Okoye jumper, 66-61, but the Bulldogs whittled away. With 6:48 to play, Jaron Lane converted a driving layup to make it a one-point game, 71-70, and Stephenson scored on the next Asheville possession to give the visitors a 73-72 advantage.

From there, the teams swapped the lead four times over the next 1:55 of game action. After Jeremy Atkinson scored four straight points to put Asheville up, 78-76, Upshur scored to tie the game with 4:01 remaining, 78-78. That would be the final tie of the night, as Atkinson scored again on the next Bulldog possession. In fact, he would do so yet again on the following time down the floor, running his effort to eight straight points and giving UNC Asheville a three-point cushion, 82-79.

Upshur hit two free throws, cutting the deficit to one, but Stephenson scored to push it back to three, 84-81 as the clock went under two minutes. VMI split two free throws, and Lane and Upshur traded hoops to make it a two-point game, 86-84, and set the stage for the dramatic final 28 seconds.

In addition to Okoye and Upshur, Gore and Gabriel chipped in 14 apiece. Gabriel’s 14 points moved him into fifth place on VMI’s all-time scoring list, as the senior passed Travis Holmes ’09 with 1,746 career markers. Upshur added five steals as well, equaling his career high set three times previously. One game after making just three three-pointers, VMI hit 10 of 23 from distance (43.5%).

VMI basketball will return to action Saturday, playing host to Winthrop at Cameron Hall. Game time is set for 1 p.m.

Quotes – VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom

“We played hard enough to win. We just didn’t play smart enough. We didn’t make smart plays down the stretch, and you have to make free throws. That was the difference. We got to the line, but we just have to make them.”

“We had a short bench, and you have to play those guys smart defensively – And without fouling. Putting them at the line was like giving points away, as good as they are shooting free throws.”

“We wrote on our board, ‘You never know which play gets you beat’, and we had multiple ones tonight. This was a chance for a great win, and it is just sickening that we didn’t finish it.”


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