Beyond the Scoreboard: UNC Asheville women chasing third straight NCAA tourney invite

The Bulldogs (13-11, 10-3) are making a serious run for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance, continuing a Phoenix-like rise from the bottom of the league standings. (Photo: UNC Asheville)

Most college basketball teams would be concerned about playing an important conference game on the road, heading into enemy territory with a home-court advantage.

But the UNC Asheville women’s basketball squad is not your usual team.

As part of an amazing transformation – not only this season but for the program as a whole – the Bulldogs have flipped an 0-6 start into an 13-11 record and go into first-place Liberty on Saturday one game behind the Flames in the Big South Conference regular-season race.

“I hope we have some carryover at Liberty from last year (where the Bulldogs won four games in four days to claim the Big South tourney title),” said Asheville coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick.

“We won five games (including a regular-season meeting) there last year so our guys know they can play there.”

The Bulldogs (13-11, 10-3) are making a serious run for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance, continuing a Phoenix-like rise from the bottom of the league standings.

And this season symbolizes how a determined coach and her players refuse to stay down.

After losing four starters off a team that won the BSC tournament each of the past two seasons, the team started 0-6 but have now won nine of their last 11 games.

If that kind of comeback sounds familiar, it is a theme for this program.

After a standout playing career at Tuscola High and Wake Forest, Kirkpatrick was an assistant coach at Florida when she accepted the job at Asheville in 2012 and inherited a program that has suffered through five straight losing seasons.

The Bulldogs were 22-70 in Kirkpatrick’s first three seasons, including a painful 2-28 debut in 2012-13.

The last three seasons, the program is 58-33.

The breakthrough occurred in 2015-16, when the team finished 26-7 and won the Big South Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Last year’s team pulled off a Cinderella run in the BSC Tournament, winning those four games in four days at Liberty to earn a second straight NCAA tourney invite to highlight a 19-15 season.

“We were so fortunate with our first recruiting class (that graduated last year) in that they were really good players and wonderful people, and those four players left with two rings,” said Kirkpatrick, who is 80-103 in her sixth season with the program.

“I have been blessed with a consistent staff, and we built a culture here on a relationship-based ideology. We want to be competitive and we are now, but work ethic and communication and relationships are what we have stressed and we have worked at that.

“We have really worked at building a program and not just having a good team.”

And now the Bulldogs are in the hunt for another conference title, tied for second with Radford (10-3), one game behind league leader and perennial power Liberty (11-2).

A veteran team with two seniors and a pair of juniors among their top players, the Bulldogs’ leading scorers are seniors Bronaza “Bree” Fitzgerald (13.4 points, 9.7 rebounds a game) and Khaila Webb (13.6 ppg).

Fitzgerald credits her coach with the program’s turnaround.

“The mentality of the program has changed so much over the years, and our standards went up and we committed 100 percent in wanting the same goals,” she said.

“We have the same passion and mindset. Coach’s drive and her motivation, her love for the game and her love for each one of us is what pushes us forward.”

As a senior, Webb is excited to make a final run at another Big South championship and NCAA tournament invite.

“This is the last season we can play together with this team so we want to put it all out there,” she said.

“A lot of our players are returnees so we have had that experience. We’re a very confident team in our ability and feel really good about the rest of the season.”

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