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Donovan Gregory
Donovan Gregory led the Mountaineers with 19 points.
photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

Appalachian State Men’s Basketball Picks Up Sun Belt Conference Opener

With one starter and one key role player inactive on Saturday, the App State Mountaineers grinded out a 67-55 win against the ULM Warhawks at the Holmes Center to close the book on 2023. The Mountaineers powered through shooting woes and fatigue to start the Sun Belt Conference portion of their schedule 1-0.

With the 12-point win on Saturday, the Mountaineers (10-3, 1-0 SBC) secured their 10th win before Dec. 31, marking the first time that App State has accomplished that feat since Houston Fancher’s squad won 11 games before the calendar flipped to the new year. The win also marks App State’s second consecutive Sun Belt home-opening win.

The Mountaineers continued to show that they are one of the premier teams in the Sun Belt as they also racked up their ninth double-digit victory against ULM (4-7, 0-1 SBC). App State is one of just two teams in the conference to have posted nine wins by at least 10 points thus far this season.

Down two key players and battling through foul trouble, Coach Kerns’ squad showed its depth to rally to the win. Four Mountaineers notched double-figure nights in the conference opener and six of the seven players who saw the floor tallied at least one point.

Saturday’s contest got started with a bang from Donovan Gregory as he knocked down a tough layup to notch the game’s first points. The two teams would jockey for position as play progressed, but a Jacob Wilson layup would give the Warhawks a two-point lead at the first media break.

The Warhawks would build their slim lead to five points coming out of the break after Nika Metskhvarishvili buried a three from the top of the key, but the Mountaineers battled back to take the lead at 13-12 with 12:32 left to play in the first frame as Myles Tate buried a three for his first points of the contest.

After Tate’s bucket, the Mountaineers would continue to keep their distance from the Warhawks as Justin Abson would score eight straight points to build the lead to 10, which was the largest lead of the game at that point. Abson, who had struggled coming into play on Saturday, bounced out of his slump in a big way as he tallied his highest-scoring game since Dec. 5.

Metskhvarishvili would trim the lead back down to eight with 5:05 left to play in the half, crashing the glass for a putback layup. But two straight buckets by Spillers and Abson would extend the Mountaineer lead up to 12, making it eight of the last nine contests that App State has held a double-digit lead in a game.

Despite a slow start, the Warhawks would close the first half strong to cut the App State lead to just eight as the first-half horn sounded. ULM used baskets from Jerry Ngopot and Tyreese Watson to bring the deficit back to single digits.

Abson led the way on the offensive end for App State in the first half, scoring 12 points on 5-8 shooting, while also pulling down three rebounds and blocking one shot. As a team, App State shot an efficient 48 percent from the floor while draining three three-pointers.

The Mountaineers came out of the halftime break on a mission to close out their first Sun Belt win on Saturday as they would drain three straight shots to start the half and push their lead to 13 points, forcing a ULM timeout. The duo of Gregory and Spillers helped the Mountaineers pull ahead as they each netted buckets to open the half.

But the Warhawks would not be fazed by App State’s torrid start to the final frame as they would use their own 6-0 run to pull back within eight by the first media break of the second half. Tyreke Locure, who did not play in the first half due to team disciplinary reasons, got his Saturday going by draining a three-pointer to spark the ULM bench.

ULM would continue to crawl its way back as play continued, cutting the lead down to as little as three points by the next media timeout. The Warhawks would make four of their next six shots while holding App State to just one point over a four-minute stretch to bring the game to its closest point since the 9:20 mark in the first half.

After trailing for all but four minutes in the first half, ULM would storm ahead for its first lead since the score was 10-12 after an Ngopot slam. The Warhawks’ 12-1 run over a five-minute stretch was fueled by poor shooting by the Mountaineers as they would miss six straight shots during the Warhawk run.

Maintaining its composure despite a sluggish start, App State rattled off nine straight points to reclaim an eight-point advantage at the 6:54 mark of the final frame, capped off by a Terence Harcum three-ball that blew the roof off the Holmes Center.

The Mountaineer defense would dig in to close the contest after Ngopot knocked down a layup to bring the game back to within three points at the last media break, holding the Warhawks to zero points over the final four minutes. App State used this momentum generated by its defense to go on a 9-0 run to close the game.

A Gregory putback layup would ice Saturday’s contest as the Warhawks were content to not foul with 44 seconds to play. When the final horn sounded, the Mountaineers had claimed a conference home-opening victory for the second season in a row and a 1-0 start in the Sun Belt portion of their schedule for the first time since the 2019-20 season.

With two key players down, all seven players who saw the floor stepped up big to guide App State to its first Sun Belt win of the season. Donovan Gregory led all scorers on Saturday, netting 17 points on 7-10 shooting. Gregory also pulled in six boards and dished out three assists in a complete performance. Right behind Gregory was Spillers, who fell one rebound short of his second straight double-double. In his first Sun Belt game, the junior tallied 16 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Justin Abson was another standout for the Black & Gold on Saturday as he recorded 13 points, while also crashing the glass at a high rate with seven rebounds.

App State will hit the road for its first true road game since Dec. 13, in its next contest, traveling to Mobile, Ala., to take on the South Alabama Jaguars on Thursday. Thursday’s contest will mark the beginning of a season-high four-game road trip. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.