BOONE — It’s always been about cutting down nets.
First, Coach Angel Elderkin forced her Appalachian State women’s basketball team to watch a champion celebrate with the time-honored tradition. Then, she made her players practice the action in the spring and summer.
It all was about turning hope into fate. And that conversion happened on Wednesday night.
The Mountaineers ended their season with a title in the Holmes Convocation Center. App State claimed the WBI Tournament championship with a 76-59 victory against North Texas. A program-record crowd of 1,823 watched Appalachian finish with a 22-14 record, and some fans remained as coaches, players and staffers climbed the ladders and cut their portion of history.
Everyone went before Elderkin, and that was OK. But as her time approached, so did the tears.
“It’s like, you don’t cry because it’s over, you cry because it happened,” Elderkin said. “And it was the most amazing feeling and experience that I was able to have. I love this team and I love this staff so much.”
Last season became one marred by injury. Appalachian won only eight games in 2017-18 and lost Madi Story to an ACL injury before it even started. No game was worse, according to Elderkin, than when App State played at Little Rock on Feb. 24, 2018. The Mountaineers got drubbed, 61-35.
That win gave the Trojans the regular season Sun Belt Conference title. Elderkin made her team watch the celebration as opposed to hiding in the visitors locker room. It turned out to be a grueling experience.
“They were really hurt, and they were really angry,” Elderkin said. “And I just told them, ‘That’s my vision for my program.’
“And so I didn’t do it to hurt them, I did it to let them know exactly what we wanted to do someday.”
What followed was a spring and summer of competition within the team. Breaking the players up into 3-on-3 battles, the victors cut down nylon in the Holmes Center. Elderkin made it important to win every day.
App State post player Bayley Plummer, who had eight points and 22 rebounds against North Texas, said it felt a bit silly at first. But according to sophomore forward Lainey Gosnell, the routine became something that provided a goal to a team that wanted to change the program’s trajectory.
“Even before we came out in this game, she was like, ‘Just remember what it felt like to sit there and see the other team cut the net down.’
“Being in our own gym, it was just like, ‘We’ve got to win this.’ So I think she painted a picture for us.”
Added Plummer: “It was like a focus thing, like a vision thing. If we can see these nets in our hands, then when we can actually do it.”
Wednesday’s game presented immediate challenges for App State. The Mountaineers saw Plummer get in foul trouble, as well as an injury to Pre Stanley, the WBI Tournament MVP. North Texas connected early from behind the 3-point line and rushed out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter.
But App State found its bearings in the second quarter behind stingy defense and a production explosion from Madi Story. After failing to shoot in the first quarter, Story scored 10 of her 17 points in the second. The Mountaineers held the Mean Green to only four made shots as the teams went into halftime tied. Momentum shifted shortly after as App State plowed ahead.
The Mountaineers got to cut nets down for real soon after. When all five starters were asked if it felt like they imagined, they all roared one word: “Better.”
App State won the inaugural WBI Tournament in 2010, and it signaled the start of the best stretch of Mountaineers women’s basketball.
They claimed the first installment for the invitational. That season signaled the first of four straight 20-win seasons. In the four-year stretch from 2009 to 2013, Appalachian made three appearances in the NIT to go along with the WBI win.
In App State’s first four seasons with Elderkin, the team never won more than 14 games. And those teams definitely didn’t compete for championships or titles. That all changed in one season, Elderkin’s first with a winning record.
The Mountaineers began willing Wednesday night’s celebration into existence a year ago. And now, with the team returning the bulk of its players for next season — the only major contributor graduating is story — Elderkin and her team began to embark on potentially another special time for Appalachian.
“I mean, I think this is really a great foundation block for our team to get into a postseason tournament, to win a championship,” Elderkin said. “And now we can take the next step. But there’s a process to it all. Did I think my process came a little late? Yeah. Would I have liked this in Year 1, Year 2, Year 3?
“But it was at the perfect time for me with the perfect people, and so it means everything. This group of people that have surrounded this program. These are the kind of players and staff and people that you want to win a championship with.”