App State men’s basketball advances to Sun Belt Championship for first time ever

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Courtesy Sun Belt Conference

App State grad transfer guard Michael Almonacy looks up the court during the Mountaineers’ 64-61 win over Coastal Carolina Sunday night in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals in Pensacola, Florida. Almonacy finished the game with 19 points on six made threes to go along with with six rebounds and three assists.

Silas Albright, Reporter

For the first time ever, App State men’s basketball is playing in the Sun Belt championship game. The East division fourth-seeded Mountaineers won their second straight 9 p.m. overtime game Sunday night over Coastal Carolina 64-61in Pensacola, Florida to advance to face Georgia State in the finals.

It’s the first conference title game appearance for App State since the 2010 Southern Conference tournament, when the Mountaineers fell to Wofford 56-51.

“March Madness man, it’s crazy, it’s fun,” second-year App State head coach Dustin Kerns said. “(I’m) so proud of our team, what a crazy game against a very good team. Our goal was to slow the pace down, we did exactly that.”

The East division second-seeded Chanticleers came into the game averaging over 80 points per game, good for second in the Sun Belt. The Mountaineers held CCU to just 51 points in regulation, their lowest output in 40 minutes of the year. The 61 points App State allowed in total in the game were the second fewest Coastal Carolina scored all year, after falling to Georgia Southern 61-58 Jan. 30 in regulation. 

“We were just ourselves, defensively,” Kerns said. “We weren’t doing anything normally different. We want to be aggressive with it, (and) we just try to control the tempo there on the offensive end.”

To start the game, the Mountaineers struggled out of the gate, shooting 8-33 on field goals and 3-15 on 3-pointers in the first half. The Chanticleers held a 29-20 lead at halftime.

App State chipped away at the deficit early in the second half, trailing 35-30 before grad transfer point guard Michael Almonacy caught fire. He nailed three straight 3-pointers, helping the Mountaineers go on a 12-0 run to take a 42-35 lead with a little more than 11 minutes left in regulation.

“He’s another guy that puts work in, he’s a good player, he’s tough. It means a lot to him,” Kerns said. “He said last night, ‘This is why I came here, to play for an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament,’ and so here we are.” 

Down seven, Coastal Carolina battled back to take a 48-44 lead with just over three minutes left in the second half. The Mountaineers then used a 7-0 run to cling to a 51-48 lead with 17 seconds to play. Chanticleers’ guard DeVante’ Jones drew a foul on a 3-pointer and knocked down all three free throws to tie it up at 51. App State missed its last second shot attempt and the game went to overtime. 

Mountaineers’ junior guard Adrian Delph knocked down a pair of clutch threes early in overtime, and App State led 57-55 with 2:49 to play. Thanks to a layup from sophomore forward RJ Duhart, several defensive stops and two free throws from Delph, the Mountaineers led 61-59 with 18 seconds left. 

On Coastal’s ensuing possession, App State senior guard Justin Forrest picked up his third steal of the game and hit both free throws to put the Mountaineers up by two possessions at 63-59 with nine seconds to play. The Chanticleers pulled back within two before Duhart hit one of two free throws, giving Coastal the ball back with a chance to tie it back up on a 3-pointer.

Sophomore App State wing Donovan Gregory stole the ball away before the Chanticleers could get a shot off, and the clock expired, sending the Mountaineers to their first conference title game in a decade.

Delph finished tied with Almonacy for a team-high 19 points in the game. Almonacy added three assists and six rebounds. Forrest finished with 13 points, four assists, four rebounds, three steals and a block. Duhart scored 9 points and grabbed five rebounds starting in place of junior forward James Lewis Jr., who’s battling an injury. 

Gregory tied a Sun Belt tournament single-game record with a career-high eight steals in the game. The Charlotte native also set career-highs with 14 rebounds and six assists to go along with 4 points.

The Mountaineers picked up the win behind a balanced scoring attack, bunches of timely three-pointers and a stifling all-around defensive performance. App State picked up a season-high 16 steals, forced 22 total turnovers and limited the Chanticleers to 37.1 percent (23-62) shooting from the floor and 15 percent (3-20) from beyond the arc.

“This isn’t about me. This is about App State, this is about our players,” Kerns said. “I’m excited for them, I’m excited for our program, I’m excited for our university.”

The Mountaineers move on to face the East division first-seeded Panthers of Georgia State in the championship game Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2, with the winner receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament March 18-April 5. 

“We didn’t come here just to play in it,” Kerns said. “We came here to win the thing.”

App State is 2-1 against Georgia State on the year, winning 80-71 Jan. 22 and 74-61 Jan. 23 in Boone, and falling 81-75 Feb. 23 in Atlanta. The last time App State won a conference tournament and went to the Big Dance was in 2000, when the No. 14-seeded Mountaineers fell in the first round to No. 3-seeded Ohio State, 87-61.