Pandemic Profiles: UNC Asheville Basketball Faced Highs and Lows During Pandemic

UNC Asheville basketball had to pause just a few days after their biggest win of the season last year.

This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Wofford from the Southern Conference. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Toledo. The next program in our series is UNC Asheville basketball. Mike Morrell just finished his third season leading the Bulldogs in North Carolina’s panhandle.

Morrell has quickly turned the program into a competitor in the Big South. The Bulldogs saw an 11-win improvement from his first year to his second. Then, this past season, Asheville was poised to finish strong after ending Winthrop’s 21-game winning streak, which was the longest active streak in the nation at the time. However, COVID stopped the Bulldogs in their tracks just a few days after that big victory. I had the chance to talk to Morrell about how Asheville basketball developed throughout the season, and how they tried to manage their COVID outbreak and month-long pause.

The Story of the 2020-21 UNC Asheville Basketball Program

A Slow Process

Like many programs across the country, UNC Asheville basketball was no different in having to adjust with minimal opportunities with players last summer. Like Wofford from the previous pandemic profile, the Bulldogs did not have players back on campus at all during the summer. Instead, Zoom became the instrument to try and stay connected.

“Our guys didn’t fully, as a team, get here until the beginning of August,” Morrell said. “We didn’t have any summer workouts. We really relied on Zoom and staying connected as a team through Zoom, and with our staff as well. The preparation that goes into a year with your staff is obviously extremely important.”

Morrell took advantage of online communication by having guest speakers talk to his team via Zoom. That was part of the weekly routine in which Morrell and his staff would Zoom with the team, having conversations that talked both about basketball as well as other topics. Once it was time to get back to campus, though, things didn’t start up quickly.

“When they got here, it was an extremely slow process,” Morrell stated, “because of all the protocols and things that you had to maneuver through to ensure you got started back safely. It was not until probably September that we were actually able to run up and down the court and do some things that felt somewhat normal.”

Even though things moved slowly, Morrell understood it was all for the health and safety of everybody.

Just Simply Play

The city of Asheville, NC was swept in the rumor mills when it came to bubbles. The Maui Invitational ended up there last season. Coach Morrell created his own MTE as well, trying to get games played to the benefit of his team and others in the region.

“Once the rumors started that we were probably going to move the season back, I think we started to plan for a couple of different things,” Coach remarked. “How can we get the season started as safely as possible but also give ourselves the best opportunity, not just to win games, but to simply play games. That was the goal, let’s just try to play games.”

Morrell praised the support that he had from his administration to get the ball rolling on the event.

“I was really fortunate to be at Asheville, where basketball is really important,” he said. “Our AD Janet Cone was extremely involved in helping us get that MTE off the ground. Our administration was willing to help us any way we could to put that tournament on.”

Asheville basketball ended up dropping both games by single digits in the MTE. Still, Morrell was grateful to get games in, playing five non-league games total, even though the Bulldogs went just 1-4. He pointed out that his team wasn’t fully healthy, and it helped younger guys get meaningful experience.

“I thought it really helped us,” he stated. “It was great for some of our younger players to get that experience. A guy likeĀ Trent Stephney got a ton of minutes during that stretch, and he ended up being our starter down the stretch for us at the end of the year.”

Then, the time came to shift the focus to Big South play.

Highs and Lows

UNC Asheville basketball started league play 3-0, sweeping High Point and winning the first half of the series against Longwood. The Big South changed their format to back-to-back games like many others across the nation.

“At the time, it’s what was necessary,” Morrell said of the change. “I wouldn’t want to do it continually, but it was necessary because, for us as a league, coaches, administrators, and our league officials felt like that was the safest way for us to play. Get to a point, get everybody there and tested, and hopefully everybody tests negative, and then play back-to-back so you get two games instead of one.”

The Bulldogs played 10 league games in the span of just 20 days in January. Asheville rode the wave, splitting each series except for a sweep of Charleston Southern at home.

“It made for some really interesting games on the second day,” Morrell remarked. “You saw a ton of point differentials where one team would win by double-digits, and the next team who lost on the first day would win by double-digits on the second day. I just tried to be grateful for the opportunity to play knowing that this is not something you would want to do every single year unless it was a necessity.”

Testing Positive

The Bulldogs were 8-4 in the league heading into their Winthrop series. The Eagles hadn’t lost all season, riding a 20-game winning streak. Asheville dropped the first game in a closely fought 84-80 contest. However, the next day, the winning streak fell as the Bulldogs gave Winthrop their first loss of the season 57-55. It was a momentous win, and it seemed like Asheville basketball was ready to make a push in the season’s final month. Then, the news came.

“That was the first time that we had had any type of shutdown within our program,” Morrell said of the pause. “Our program had done a tremendous job up until that point of just, as much as you can, controlling everything you could. It came at a time for us that was coming off the highest and biggest win we had had all year.”

Asheville ended up pausing for 33 days, going a full month without a game. Furthermore, as they emerged from quarantine, their next game was going to be in the conference tournament.

“It’s not like you have practice for eight or nine days and come out and practice for three hours up and down the entire practice,” Morrell said. “You had the period…which dealt with doctor’s appointments, with certain tests, cardio tests, to make sure that they were okay with that.”

Asheville basketball played Longwood in the Big South quarterfinals, losing 77-61 and ending their season. The Bulldogs played without starting centerĀ Evan Clayborne, and were also without Morrell himself.

“I think I was the last person in the program to actually test positive, so my quarantine went into the conference tournament,” he said. “I was really proud of our guys that they went out there and competed.”

Reflecting on UNC Asheville Basketball

Obviously, with playing during the pandemic, coaches tried to prepare for anything. Unfortunately, for many, COVID was more of a matter of when, not if. Asheville basketball was no different, though Morrell tried to keep perspective on everything that happened to them this past season.

“It wasn’t singular to us,” he reflected. “We weren’t the only team that had to go through it, so it wasn’t going to be like we were going to play poor, poor pitiful us. Every team had to deal with COVID at some point this year. That’s what…I was really trying to remind myself and our team of.”

Meanwhile, with his eyes looking towards next season, Morrell reflects on how the adversity his team faced last season can help in 2021-22.

“Obviously, you want to turn the page and you want to move forward,” he said. “But, you want to learn and you want to try and have some of those things that didn’t go your way help you moving forward. There’s just a sense of, you have to be prepared to respond to adversity at any point. I think you can talk about [adversity] a lot in your program, but we had more of it than I’ve ever seen with any certain team last year.”

Morrell also mentioned that he felt like his team didn’t get the chance to prove themselves last year with the way their season ended. He believes that will be a motivating factor for his team this season. With most of their key players returning, the Bulldogs will be vying for a Big South title in 2021-22.

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