Be glad it happened: App looks to bright future

The Mountaineers’ improbable run into the NCAA Tournament was short-lived after a tight First Four loss

Appalachian State players walk back onto the court after a break in the first half of a First Four game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — As Norfolk State held on for a 54-53 NCAA Tournament First Four win, several Appalachian State players weren’t quite ready for things to end. Sophomore RJ Duhart lay on the Assembly Hall floor, legs extending into the paint, arms covering his face. A short distance away, junior Adrian Delph sat underneath the basket, head hanging down.

Teammates and managers leaned over, checking on them. Both players looked like they’d suffered a hard hit and needed time to recover.

In a way they had. It wasn’t quite midnight, but the Mountaineers’ season had turned back into a pumpkin. After a magical run through the Sun Belt Tournament and a comeback from 19 down in the first half against Norfolk State, things ended a point short.

“That’s March Madness,” said coach Dustin Kerns. “It’s March Madness. There’s heartbreak. There’s buzzer-beaters. That’s it right there. That’s why everybody loves it.”

When his players finally pulled themselves off the floor and headed into the locker room, the fourth-year coach (second at App) tried to put things into perspective.

“I told our team don’t be sad it’s over; be glad it happened,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of. And proud of how our guys represent the university and their community and their families. But we’re hanging the first Sun Belt banner in our arena. There’s a lot of banners up there. And so this team has a lot to be celebrated for.”

It was the third trip to the NCAA Tournament in school history and first in 21 years. In addition, Kerns appears to have the program on a track where the wait until the next March Madness trip will come much sooner.

“I haven’t really had a chance to think about next year much,” he said. “But I think that this will give our program a huge boost in the community, on campus, with our students. It should carry momentum with a lot of excitement into next season. And then we’ve got a lot of guys with experience going through this and winning the Sun Belt and playing in this tournament.”

The experience amounted to a still-open wound on Thursday night, but scars will form and disappointment will turn into motivation.

“Experience is the best teacher,” Kerns said, “and certainly, we have a lot of guys in that locker room who got experience playing in this tournament.”

The team will likely need to replace Forrest, the team’s leading scorer and the only Mountaineer in double figures on Thursday, as well as grad transfer Michael Almonacy, who led the team in assists and made threes. Both could opt to take advantage of the NCAA rule allowing them to return for another year — Forrest said he was still undecided after the game — but both wrapped up their fourth year playing college basketball with each missing a shot in the final four seconds.

“He’s got a lot to be celebrated about,” Kerns said of Forrest. “He’s had an incredible career here. He’s set a lot of records. And most importantly, he got App State to the NCAA Tournament. And I think he’s going to be remembered for a lot, but he’ll be remembered for getting App State to the NCAA Tournament and really changing the course of the program. His junior and senior year, we had stopped an eight-year losing streak and then went on to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what he’ll be remembered for, and that’s pretty special for him.”

Kerns, who preached for his team to “take the stairs” in his first two years instead of looking for a shortcut, knows that things changed on Thursday night.

“Now they’ve gotten a taste of this,” he said. “They’ve won a Sun Belt championship, so now they know really what all goes into it and taken that to another level. We necessarily can’t take the same route that we took up the stairwell. We’ve got to take a different route. And the new guys that enter our program, the older guys, pulling them aside and saying, ‘Hey, this is what it takes, and this is what it’s all about.’”

That will all happen for App, but for one night, the guys just needed to cry a little about what might have been.

“This is emotional,” Kerns said. “And when it comes to a screeching halt there, especially abruptly with an opportunity to win it, that’s difficult. That’s difficult. I just told them at some point we get through it. Instead of being sad, be glad it happened.”