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Donovan Gregory
Donovan Gregory led the Mountaineers with 22 points.
photo courtesy of Appalachian State Athletics

Appalachian State Men’s Basketball Wins Sun Belt Conference Regular Season Title

In a highly anticipated game to close the regular season, App State Men’s Basketball claimed its first outright regular season conference title in 45 years by thrashing the Arkansas State Red Wolves 80-57 in front of 7,047 fans at the Holmes Center on Friday night.

It was an incredible scene in Boone as head coach Dustin Kerns and the team cut down nets as outright champions for the first time ever as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

The win for App State (26-5, 16-2 SBC) set a program record for single-season victories while also securing the best conference record in program history. As of App State’s win over Arkansas State (16-15, 11-7 SBC), only James Madison has more wins in the entire country.

In front of another nearly sold-out crowd, the Mountaineers also set a Holmes Center season attendance record and secured an undefeated home record at 15-0, a total that included thrilling victories against Auburn, JMU and Toledo (in two overtimes). It’s the first undefeated season at home for the Mountaineers since the 1966-67 season and a program record for wins at the Holmes Center.

Putting a bow on a special night, the Mountaineers honored three seniors in Bryant Greene, CJ Huntley and Donovan Gregory. With the Sun Belt Tournament still looming, Gregory has already surpassed the record as the all-time winningest player in program history.

Defense played a major factor in the win as the Mountaineers held an Arkansas State team that entered play in Boone on a six-game winning streak to a season-low 57 points on 35-percent shooting. Similarly to Wednesday night against Old Dominion, the Mountaineer defense was suffocating from the opening tip and allowed the offense to take control of the game early.

As has been the case all season, the depth of the Mountaineers was crucial to securing a conference championship, as nine of the 10 players who saw the floor scored a basket. Four players eclipsed double figures, led by 15 points from Gregory and Tre’Von Spillers, who added 15 rebounds.

When the final horn sounded, the Mountaineers had claimed a 23-point victory and were presented the Sun Belt trophy at midcourt. Kerns addressed the crowd, and the team cut down nets for the second time in his tenure, adding to the 2021 ceremony following App State’s victory in the Sun Belt Tournament final in Florida.

As fans flooded the arena leading to the opening tip, excitement palpitated throughout the Holmes Center. The Mountaineers took full advantage of that energy, scoring the first points of the game courtesy of Huntley. App State pushed the tempo from the jump and scored 11 of the first 13 points.

A 3-pointer by Gregory off a defensive stand that included a pair of blocks from Xavion Brown and Spillers brought the raucous crowd to its feet as App State led by six. Gregory buried yet another trey off another stop, giving the Mountaineers a nine-point lead by the 15:48 mark, before the Red Wolves finally stopped the bleeding.

Despite Arkansas State’s score, almost nothing could stop the Mountaineers early in the game as they would take a 10-point lead into the first media timeout. App State was active on the offensive glass all night, which led to a 3-pointer from Terence Harcum off a loose ball and another three by Huntley as play hit a stoppage.

The Red Wolves curbed the Mountaineers’ run, using a brief shooting slump by the Mountaineers to trim the lead down to three by the 10:21 mark. Derrian Ford and Izaiyah Nelson helped bring the Red Wolves back on track.

The Mountaineers immediately answered Arkansas State’s run with a run of their own and jumped back in front by eight after Christopher Mantis drilled a 3-pointer off a pump fake. The lead grew back to 10 after Brown’s layup fell through and Jordan Marsh capped off the 8-0 run with a 3-pointer just before the under-eight break to give App State a 13-point lead.

Capitalizing off the crowd, App State’s lead grew to 16 as Marsh intercepted a pass and raced down the floor to lay home a basket at the 5:16 mark, propelling App State to a large lead of 16.

Racing to the halftime buzzer, Myles Tate and Spillers got involved, each scoring baskets down the stretch to help App State close out the first half with a 14-point lead. It was the 19th time this season that the Mountaineers have taken a lead to the halftime break.

Gregory’s three first-half 3s fueled the Mountaineer offense as he tallied 11 points to lead all scorers before the break. Right behind Gregory was Huntley and Harcum, who each recorded eight. The defense in the first half was superb as Arkansas State made just 3 of 15 attempts from 3-point range and shot 34 percent. There were hands disrupting every shot along the perimeter, and each shot in the lane was contested by multiple guys.

With just 20 minutes to play to secure a Sun Belt title, App State immediately built its lead to 18 thanks to a pair of buckets by Spillers and Harcum. Spillers finished with his 10th double-double of the season in the win.

A nearly four-minute scoring drought from both teams slowed things down, but it was App State’s Justin Abson who broke the spell, as a slick pass from Harcum led to a thunderous slam by the big man. Looking to spark a run, the Red Wolves cut the lead back to 13 at the under-12 break. Despite the run, the Mountaineers immediately answered with another run, and the lead ballooned back to 18 by the 10:27 mark.

Feeding off the crowd’s energy, an inbounds play led to an alley-oop slam by Huntley that took the roof off the building one more time. Huntley, who made his first start since Dec. 5, was huge as he scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds while also being plus-15 on the court.

The crowd could feel a Sun Belt championship in sight, and the Mountaineers gave it plenty of reason to get excited as the lead grew to 21 by the 5:09 mark. A pair of free throws by Abson and an acrobatic finish by Brown pushed the lead to its highest mark of the game.

Another transition dunk from Huntley put the finishing touches on the win, as his slam pushed the lead to 24 points. The big lead allowed Greene the chance to see the floor one last time at the Holmes Center as the crowd erupted at the end of what was a dream regular season for the Black and Gold.

Four Mountaineers eclipsed double figures in the win, but it was Gregory who led the way with his 15 points on three made 3s. His long-range shooting sparked the Mountaineers from the jump and pushed them ahead early. Tre’Von Spillers’ 10th double-double of the season exemplified the dominant performance on the glass, as he recorded 15 points and 15 rebounds. It’s his second straight game in which he has recorded at least 15 points and 15 rebounds. In Huntley’s first start in nearly three months, he shined with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He also grabbed nine rebounds.

The Mountaineers prepare for their opening game of the Sun Belt Tournament next Saturday, March 9, at 12:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. CT) against the winner of a Thursday matchup between No. 8 seed South Alabama and No. 9 seed Georgia Southern. App State will enter its conference tournament as the No. 1 seed for the first time since 1978-79, when the Mountaineers were outright regular season champions in the Southern Conference. Every game until the championship contest can be streamed on ESPN+.