High Point, UNC Asheville meet with Big South on line

The Panthers are looking to finish the regular season sweep of the defending conference champs

High Point will need to slow UNC Asheville’s Drew Pember — right, last year’s Big South player of the year — when the Bulldogs host the Panthers on Wednesday. (Carlos Osorio / AP Photo)

On Jan. 10, High Point delivered a message to the defending Big South champions that a new team was in charge of the conference. On Wednesday night, the Panthers can expect a response.

UNC Asheville won the 2022-23 Big South regular season by a four-game margin, then cut down the nets in the conference tournament, earning an NCAA Tournament game against second-seeded UCLA. The Bulldogs arrived at High Point riding an 11-game winning streak in Big South games.

In their first game since students returned to campus following holiday break, High Point had a near-sellout “blackout” game, with players wearing black uniforms that matched the fans’ game day apparel.

High Point jumped out to a big early lead that grew as large as 15 points. UNCA rallied, cutting the lead to three at the half, but the Panthers came out of the locker room with six quick points and held off another Bulldogs rally to take command in the standings.

Just under a month later, the two squads hold the top two spots in the Big South, and they’ll play a rematch, this time in Asheville.

The Bulldogs are 9-1 at home, and High Point coach Alan Huss credited his raucous home court environment for the victory in the first matchup.

“Down the stretch I thought the students really gave us a lift, and I thought the crowd was terrific,” Huss said.

The stakes

The venue isn’t the only thing that changes this time around. The Panthers’ victory in January transferred the Big South bull’s-eye from the back of UNC Asheville to High Point’s. The Panthers have done nothing to give it up in the four weeks since.

High Point enters the game on a 12-game winning streak, the longest in the nation. They have a two-game lead in the conference over UNCA. That lead could be gone by the time the Super Bowl kicks off, however. After traveling to Asheville, the Panthers have a road game at Gardner-Webb, the third-place team in the league which has a six-game winning streak of its own.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, need to make their move now. UNCA faces a tough season-ending three-game stretch, closing the schedule with road games at Longwood and Radford sandwiched around a home game with Gardner-Webb, who already holds a win over the Bulldogs this season.

The stars

It’s not surprising that, as the top two teams in the Big South, High Point and UNC Asheville are the class of the league, but the Panthers and Bulldogs have managed to separate themselves from the rest of the conference thanks to the two most talented rosters.

Of the 15 Big South player of the week awards given out so far this season, 10 have been won by High Point or Asheville players. High Point junior Kezza Giffa shared this week’s award with UNC Asheville’s Drew Pember. It’s the third straight week Giffa has been honored and the fourth time in the last five weeks. That’s more awards than any other team in the league, including the Bulldogs, have earned.

Giffa is averaging a Big South-best 25.2 points in conference games, more than eight points higher than his full-season average, which ranks third in the conference. He’s also among the conference leaders in shooting, 3-pointers and assists.

The only other multiple winners this year have been Pember and High Point’s Duke Miles. Along with Giffa, they represent the league’s top three scorers. Pember has a Big South-best 21 points-per-game average and also ranks in the top five in rebounding, shooting, 3s, assists and double-doubles. In addition to also making his mark on the league leaders lists, Miles nearly single-handedly closed out High Point’s first win over Asheville. He scored with 50 seconds left to give the Panthers a three-point lead, then stripped Pember and took it coast to coast to score, sticking in the dagger.

High Point has also won nine of the league’s 13 freshman of the week awards, with big man Juslin Bodo Bodo earning six and guard Titas Sargiunas taking the last two. Bodo Bodo leads the league in rebounds and is No. 2 in blocked shots. Sargiunas has seen his playing time and impact grow in recent weeks, and he hasn’t missed a free throw since Thanksgiving.

The matchup

The Panthers have one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball, ranking 37th in points per possession. They are also one of the top rebounding teams, ranking in the top 20 at both ends of the floor. The one weakness for High Point is perimeter defense. Opponents hit 35.4% from 3, which ranks No. 286 in the country, not a good sign with UNC Asheville ranking in the top 25 in the country in hitting outside shots.

Even with all the talent on both rosters, the Big South is still destined to be a one-bid league. That means neither team will know its NCAA fate until the conference tournament. This game will go a long way in deciding who will be wearing their home jerseys when the two teams meet with the NCAA ticket on the line in March.