ASHEVILLE — Appalachian State lived in the glee of a buzzer beater last week. On Wednesday, the final in-game message Coach Angel Elderkin gave her team was, essentially, lets not die in it.
In its opening matchup of the WBI Tournament, App State managed to hold a senior-heavy UNC Asheville at arm’s length. The Mountaineers relied on the experience of senior Madi Story and junior Ashley Polacek to maintain a lead that lasted basically the entire game.
But a stellar two-way performance from Pre Stanley, a sophomore guard, helped see the win through. Appalachian held off UNCA’s final possession with 2.2 seconds on the clock, winning 57-55 to advance to the second round. App State will face Marshall, a team it beat by 22 in November.
After App State (19-14) drained the clock and missed a 3-pointer on its final possession, Elderkin reminded the team of seven days ago, when Story hit a game-winning shot against Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
That’s why Elderkin put an emphasis on keeping the ball away from Jessica Wall, a UNCA senior.
“It was basically don’t let No. 10 (Wall) get a 3,” Elderkin said. “... We experienced such joy in New Orleans with Madi hitting that buzzer beater. That’s a senior. I have a lot of respect for Jess Wall.
“And all I kept thinking about today was I hope it doesn’t come back at us, a senior in her last game.”
App State was making its first postseason appearance as a program since 2013, when the Mountaineers received a spot in the WNIT. Asheville, meanwhile, was coming off a stretch of just the opposite. The Bulldogs (17-15) have appeared in postseason tournaments in each of the past four years.
Twice, in 2016 and 2017, UNCA was the Big South Conference champion, receiving an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Starting four seniors, it was no coincidence the Bulldogs managed to hang around. Plus, the Mountaineers were coming off an emotional hangover after their run in the Sun Belt Tournament. App State lost to top seed, and eventual champion, Little Rock on Friday, 80-64.
“That was tough, but we can’t sit and hold our heads down for long,” Stanley said. “We’ve got to get back to it, fix the little things. And I think we are just a little tired here and there, but ... we’re all on the same page and we all have the same vision.”
After App State rushed out to an 13-point lead in the first quarter, UNCA watched its shooting struggles settle out. The Bulldogs were able to get App State post players Bayley Plummer and Lainey Gosnell into foul trouble — Plummer finished the game with four with Gosnell fouled out with 1:20 remaining — and start chipping away at App State’s lead.
“We knew they were going to be physical,” Story said. “Bayley and Lainey just got in foul trouble, and if you get that early in the game, it just gets you out of your rhythm.
“But honestly, I didn’t think we played our best basketball. I kind of think we played down to their level.”
The Mountaineers stayed ahead behind Story (who scored 18 points), Polacek (16) and Stanley (15). The trio combined to score more than 85 percent of their team’s points. But Stanley also supplied the handcuffs to Wall.
Wall entered the game averaging 11.2 points per game, and Stanley held her to seven. More importantly, she limited Wall to only eight shots in the game.
Stanley scored the Mountaineers’ last four points. She hit a 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining to break only the second tie of the game. She also added a free throw, which gave App State some breathing room.
Story said Stanley has brought an intensity to the basketball team, both on the court and off, that it needed. And it’s something the senior expects the sophomore to carry even more so as Appalachian moves ahead in 16-team tournament.
“I think it’s just her focus on the ring,” Story said. “Even in the Sun Belt, she’s like ‘lets go, we’ve got to get a ring.’
“Her passion for it, she’s really getting everybody hyped.”