The 21-year wait is over. App State men’s basketball is headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.
Dustin Kerns‘ Mountaineers capped an impressive Sun Belt tournament run with an 80-73 win over Georgia State Monday night, hoisting the program’s first Sun Belt trophy at the Pensacola Bay Center.
The No. 4 seed in the Sun Belt East division, App State (17-11) won four games in four days to capture its first league title since a Southern Conference crown in 2000.
“I thought we outplayed [Georgia State]. We deserved to win the tournament,” Kerns said. “Our guys were incredibly tough winning four games in four days. We believed. I’m just so proud for our players and our university.”
Sun Belt Championship Most Outstanding Player Michael Almonacy lit up the scoreboard throughout the Mountaineers’ four games in Pensacola, but he saved his best for last. The Southern New Hampshire transfer scored a career-high 32 points on 10-of-18 field goals and hit six 3-pointers at timely moments to help App State turn an early back-and-forth battle into a second-half lead that the Mountaineers did not relinquish over the final 15 minutes.
“He was unbelievable,” Kerns said of Almonacy, who was one of the few players on the court born before the Mountaineers won their last conference title. “He’s a tough guy. He’s the first grad transfer I’ve ever taken. He’s a great fit for us. Tough guy. Teammates love him. I’m so happy for him.”
Adrian Delph added 22 points, and Justin Forrest scored 15. Donovan Gregory made four clutch free throws down the stretch for his only points, but added 10 rebounds, two blocks, three steals and several of the team’s many hustle plays that won them the championship despite playing on a fourth straight day, including back-to-back overtime games. For his efforts during the tournament, Forrest was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Having advanced to their first Sun Belt championship game, the Mountaineers trailed by as many as seven points in the first half to East division No. 1 seed Georgia State (16-6), which was making its third straight title game appearance and fifth in the last seven years.
Trailing 37-35 at the break, App State traded leads with Georgia State a couple of times before Almonacy’s 3-pointer at the 15:10 mark gave the Mountaineers a 43-41 lead that they would never surrender.
App State’s guard-heavy lineup made 10 more 3-pointers Monday and shattered the Sun Belt Tournament record with 44 triples over the four-game stretch (ULM had 37 in 2019). Almonacy’s 20 three’s in Pensacola also established a new tournament record, overtaking the 15 that Troy’s Wesley Person drained in 2017.
To make its improbable run to the championship, App State defeated preseason league favorite Little Rock (67-60) on Friday before earning back-to-back overtime victories against West No. 1 seed and regular-season league champion Texas State (76-73) on Saturday and East No. 2 seed Coastal Carolina (64-61) on Sunday.
This will be the third NCAA Tournament appearance for App State, which went dancing in 1979 under head coach Bobby Cremins and 2000 under head coach Buzz Peterson.
The Mountaineers improved to 3-7 all-time in conference championship games.
The NCAA men’s basketball selection show is Sunday, March 14. It will start at 6 p.m. ET on CBS. The entire 2021 men’s basketball championship will be played in Indiana, with the majority of the tournament’s 67 games taking place in Indianapolis. The First Four will be played Thursday, March 18, followed by first-round games March 19 and 20.