By Bret Strelow, App State Athletics
The tears and other emotional byproducts briefly concealed the fulfilled smile on Angel Elderkin‘s face.
Repeating what her players had done earlier — not only moments earlier, but as far back as 13 months earlier — Elderkin climbed the steps of a Holmes Center ladder, cut the last hanging strands of net and extended it toward an approving audience gathered on the confetti-covered floor.
App State’s 76-59 victory against North Texas in front of a record-breaking home crowd capped a WBI Championship run that was meaningful for the Mountaineers’ head coach, team and program.
“You don’t cry because it’s over,” Elderkin said. “You cry because it happened, 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.”
When the Mountaineers formed a circle and joined hands near midcourt, as they do after home games in Boone, there was clearly something different Wednesday night.
The centerpiece had changed from an on-court logo to a table with WBI Championship hardware. Moments later, Elderkin received hugs from Chancellor Sheri Everts and Director of Athletics Doug Gillin as App State players hoisted tournament MVP Pre Stanley in the air.
There was a lot to celebrate inside a Holmes Center that was lively and even slippery — thanks to a postgame dousing of Elderkin.
A year removed from an eight-win season with a roster relying heavily on newcomers, the Mountaineers closed a 22-14 turnaround with a 4-0 march to another WBI title, making App State’s women the last N.C. college team still standing in April.
As the WBI progressed, the momentum built with both the crowds and final margins growing bigger and bigger.
Appalachian pulled out a 57-55 win at UNC-Asheville on March 20 before hosting the final three rounds of the tournament.
It held a one-point lead in the fourth quarter of an 83-71 home win against Marshall on March 25, and Elderkin grabbed the courtside P.A. microphone afterward to thank fans for their support as well as encourage them to return five days later for a semifinal showdown with Campbell.
App State started the fourth quarter of that game with a three-point lead and won 70-57, prompting an appreciative Elderkin to return to the mic for one more call to action.
The message reached its intended targets, as the Mountaineers set a home attendance record with 1,823 fans Wednesday and turned an early 12-point deficit into a lead that reached as many as 23 points in the fourth quarter.
“This is all they’ve ever wanted — to play in front of a community that really rallied,” Elderkin said. “Our community really got behind this team. It was really special to see, and that’s something we say in recruiting. If you continue to engage the community and continue to put out a good brand of basketball, we know this community loves App State and will get behind you.”
Fans stood and cheered when a 3-pointer by Lainey Gosnell started the comeback from a 22-10 deficit late in the first quarter. They did the same when redshirt senior Madi Story converted a basket on an up-and-under move and Stanley cut the deficit to one with another 3-pointer.
App State finally pulled even on a Story jumper in the last minute of the first half and took its first lead on a Stanley layup in the opening minute of the third quarter. With Bayley Plummer dominating the glass and point guard Ashley Polacek scoring when she wasn’t pitching the ball ahead to open teammates, the Mountaineers kept increasing their lead.
Elderkin was able to sub out her starters with several minutes remaining, and Story’s embrace of Elderkin ended with the fifth-year senior lifting the fifth-year head coach into the air.
“We’ve just been through so much together,” Story said. “I came in when she came in. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of obstacles throughout my years being here, so to go out like we did, it was incredible.”
A knee injury had forced Story to sit out the eight-win season in 2017-18. She rejoined a team that had grown up and gained valuable experience during that difficult season.
When the Mountaineers closed the 2017-18 regular season with a 61-35 loss at first-place Little Rock, Elderkin directed her team to watch the Trojans’ net-cutting celebration. In the offseason, at the end of three-on-three workouts and other competitive drills for App State players, the winners were rewarded with net-cutting privileges that would serve as good motivation and practice for the future.
Fast forward to Wednesday night, and Story was the first player to climb the steps and cut a souvenir-worthy strand. More players and staff members followed, with an emotional Elderkin completing the procession.
Asked how doing it for real compared to the simulations, App State’s five starters responded simultaneously with the same one-word answer.
Together, they all said it felt even better.
“As a coach, you hear people tell you all the time that player-led teams can go a lot farther than coach-led teams,” Elderkin said. “All the reading and studying that I’ve done, this team was a player-led team when it came to March, and they took us on just an unbelievable ride.”