Monday wasn’t just a night for Appalachian State to play a strong mid-major opponent.
The matchup against UNC Greensboro in the Greensboro Coliseum pitted the Mountaineers (3-3) against a team that’s made the same steps they hope to.
UNCG and App State are in conferences of similar strength; KenPom.com ranks the Southern Conference as the 15th best in the nation, one spot ahead of the Sun Belt Conference. UNCG also is an in-state school with a similar enrollment size (20,196) to App State (19,280). The Spartans basketball team has pivoted from struggle to successful in Coach Wes Miller’s eight years running the program.
Coach Dustin Kerns of App State saw the early years of Miller’s tenure from 2013 to 2017 during his second stint as an assistant coach at Wofford.
“Coach Miller’s done a great job here,” Kerns said Monday. “And it certainly was a process for him.
“But credit them and the administration for supporting him and getting behind him and giving him time. ... They have taken off and really been an elite program.”
Miller had four straight losing seasons as the Spartans head coach before they found their stride. They’ve had three consecutive seasons of 25 wins or more, featuring trips to the NCAA Tournament (2018) and the NIT (2017 and 2019).
Kerns and Miller, obviously, have their own coaching styles. Kerns will build a program the way he wants. But both have emphasized defense, and that was on full display Monday night in UNCG’s 55-41 victory.
With the Mountaineers’ defense-first mindset, they learned they could hang with a quality opponent.
App State kept pace with UNCG in the first half, matching intensity with intensity. The Mountaineers found early scoring success from Adrian Delph, who scored the Mountaineers’ first seven points, and Isaac Johnson’s strong presence inside.
UNCG held a one-point lead at halftime.
“First half we did pretty well,” Johnson said. “Could run contained, and we were just down by one when we got into the half. Then in the second half, we just got hit in the mouth, and we didn’t come back from that.”
The Spartans applied even heavier pressure inside out of the break, and App State’s offense stalled out. In the second half, the Mountaineers shot 18.5% from the field (5 of 27), 12.5% from the 3-point line (1 of 8) and 15.4% from the free-throw line (2 of 13).
App State shot 18 free throws in the game, making only four.
UNCG went on a 14-0 run in the first four minutes of the second half, and App State was unable to find its footing from there.
“We just couldn’t get in a rhythm offensively,” Kerns said. “And when you can’t get into rhythm offensively, you try to get to the free-throw (line), which we did. But you’ve got to step up there and make some free throws and get going that way.”
Still, Kerns found more than a few things that gave him hope. First, it was the team defense, which has now allowed 62 points or less in the past five games.
Also, Johnson’s disruptive style forced the Spartans to double team him inside. Johnson had a double-double of 10 points and 14 rebounds, hitting a pair of 3-pointers, but was largely removed in the second half by UNCG’s defense.
And then there was freshman Kendall Lewis, who played a season-high 28 minutes while scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Lewis’ game was a product of a few factors.
Kerns said his performance against Tennessee Tech on Saturday warranted a little more time Monday. Lewis also provides more length to the App State defense. He also benefited from the absence of Donovan Gregory, who was a gametime scratch due to a foot injury.
“I love how he played today,” Johnson added. “He’s improving every game. I just love the way he plays. He has a lot of confidence as a freshman.”
App State left Greensboro with plenty to work on. Just before he left, Kerns was asked about his current task — helping turn around a program that hasn’t broken .500 since the 2010-11 season — and what Miller has accomplished 100-plus miles from Boone.
Kerns pointed out that it always comes down to one main thing, which is even more true for a first-year coach who’s working to build excitement around the program.
“I’m sure there’s some similarities with just sticking with the process,” Kerns said. “We believe in what we do. And we’re going to stick with it.”