Mountaineers ‘Take the Stairs’ to history in unprecedented 2021 season


Andy McLean

Sophomore forward RJ Duhart hoists the Sun Belt tournament trophy in front of a crowd of Mountaineer faithful. Duhart started at center for the Mountaineers after junior James Lewis Jr. got injured in the quarterfinals. Duhart played a combined 79 minutes in the semifinal and championship rounds, helping his team to its first ever Sun Belt tournament title.

Ben Brady, Reporter

App State men’s basketball won its first ever Sun Belt Championship, sending the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years.

In just his second season with the program, head coach Dustin Kerns has revamped the program, bringing the Mountaineers from eight straight losing seasons to the team’s first conference title since 2000, and first ever Sun Belt title since joining the conference in 2014. 

Tied for seventh place in the complete regular season Sun Belt standings, and having lost six of their final seven regular-season games, the Mountaineers found themselves facing improbable odds before the tournament began. 

The difficult seeding App State received accompanied a season full of tribulations stemming from COVID-19 protocols, including having to meet in a classroom to watch film, ordering take-out to eat in their rooms when on the road, and taking multiple buses to games to adhere to social distancing. 

“There’s a lot of behind the scene’s stuff that people don’t realize,” said Kerns. “From a chemistry standpoint, that stuff is challenging when you’re not around your team.” 

The Mountaineers would face adversity once again, having to win four tough matchups in four nights to earn the coveted conference championship.

The X’s and O’s are part of it, but there is an inner drive, and that becomes contagious throughout that locker room.

— Dustin Kerns

In the March 5 opener against preseason favorite Little Rock, App State set a precedent they hoped to follow, earning a 67-60 victory behind 24 points from senior guard Justin Forrest. 

Their next matchup against top-seeded Texas State, the Mountaineers led 61-53 with 30 seconds left in regulation. However, the Bobcats did the improbable, hitting four straight three pointers, including a game-tying three as time expired, sending the game to overtime in a 65-65 tie.

In the overtime period, Forrest hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, while graduate transfer guard Michael Almonacy hit another three to bring the lead to four with 56 seconds left and secure a 76-73 victory. 

Forrest scored a season-high 28 points, hitting 14-of-17 free throws and grabbing six rebounds. Almonacy added 23 points and six boards in the game.

The following night’s matchup against Coastal Carolina also took longer than regulation to be decided, as when the Mountaineers led by three points in the final 15 seconds of regulation, a controversial foul call awarded the Chanticleers three free throws, sending the game to overtime at 51 a piece. 

Eight overtime points from junior guard Adrian Delph paired with tenacious team defense gave the Mountaineers a hard-fought 64-61 victory, sending them to a conference championship final for the first time since 2010. 

Almonacy and Delph each contributed 19 points, while sophomore wing Donovan Gregory filled the box score with 14 rebounds, six assists, and a Sun Belt Tournament record-tying eight steals. 

Gregory acknowledged the importance of staying poised on the defensive end, and its impact on the game overall. 

That’s something that we take pride in as a team,” said Gregory. “When we have a good defensive game, it leads to a good offensive game as well, and that’s just one of the key things we knew we had to do in the tournament.” 

App State erased double-digit deficits in both overtime victories leading up to the final.

In the first half of the championship game against East division No. 1 seed Georgia State, which was making its third straight title game appearance and in the midst of an eight-game win streak, the Mountaineers trailed by as many as seven points in the first half. 

App State had not backed down in the face of adversity leading up to the final, and the team certainly would not give up this close to a championship. 

Michael Almonacy went off for a career-high 32 points and hit six 3-pointers to help App State establish a second half lead that they would not relinquish over the final 15 minutes. 

Junior guard Adrian Delph added 22 points, and Donovan Gregory once again filled the stat sheet, putting up 10 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals. 

For his efforts of 21.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game throughout the run, and a tournament record 20 3-pointers made, Almonacy was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. 

A graduate transfer who spent time playing for Stony Brook and Southern New Hampshire before transferring to App State, Almonacy joined the Mountaineers prior to the season as an experienced veteran in a new system. 

“He’s brought experience to our team, scoring and shooting ability, but most importantly is his leadership,” said Forrest. “You could tell that he just has something in him, he wants to win, and that might be the biggest thing that rubbed off on a lot of us.”

Forrest was named to the all-Tournament team, averaging 20.0 points throughout the tournament, scoring in double figures in all four games. Delph averaged 17.8 points and 6.0 rebounds throughout, and Gregory grabbed 3.5 steals a game on the defensive end.

While Kerns accredited his team’s offensive and defensive strategy, rotations, game plans, scheme, and execution of technique, he understands that his team’s success goes beyond the playbook. 

“The X’s and O’s are part of it, but there is an inner drive, and that becomes contagious throughout that locker room,” said Kerns. “I don’t know if we’ve got the greatest individual talent in this league, but I think we’ve got an unbelievable team.” 

Since his arrival in Boone, Kerns has implemented his mantra onto the program: “Take the Stairs,” meaning avoiding shortcuts and understanding that hard work will ultimately lead to a desired outcome. He emphasized that his team will follow the same motto in its NCAA tournament appearance. 

“We’re not playing in the tournament just to say we’re going to the tournament,” said Kerns. “Let’s go make more memories.”

The Mountaineers fell in a heartbreaker to Norfolk State in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament March 18. Postgame, Kerns said he told his players not to cry because it’s over, but to smile because it happened.