At the start of its 2015-16 campaign, UNC-Asheville held a ranking of BR-344 out of 349 D1 women's basketball teams. Since then the Bulldogs have shot up to BR-183 after putting together one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the country this year.
During their 2014-15 season, the Bulldogs finished with a disappointing 9-22 record. The team matched their win total early on this year, bursting out of the gate to a 9-1 record by mid-December, and tying a program record for the best start in school history.
"It feels great to see the change and how much we have improved since my freshman year. It's been a complete 180," senior Chatori Major said.
UNC-Asheville surpassed that mark with win No. 10 coming against Winthrop on Dec. 29. There was no slowing down for this group, either, as the Bulldogs have continued to blast their way through the Big South Conference, rolling to a 18-4 record — doubling their win total from a season ago — while going 11-2 in league play.
“I think this year we adopted a new team focus on the process. I feel that everyone on the team has bought into this focus and we are working toward bettering ourselves as a team each game, and allowing the outcome to stem from that," senior Tianna Knuckles said.
Major and Knuckles don't just have two of the best last names in the country, they are also leading the way for UNC-Asheville, scoring 13.5 and 13.7 points apiece, respectively, through 22 games played. Major also has 25 steals, seven blocks and 68 rebounds for the Bulldogs while Knuckles has 77 rebounds, 11 blocks and 21 steals.
In addition to the dynamic duo, Ja'Da Brayboy has been solid with 7.8 points per game, 81 rebounds and a team-high 28 steals as Khaila Webb has racked up 7.5 points with 66 boards and 18 steals.
On the year, the Bulldogs have outscored opponents 71.1 – 58.3 and have limited opponents to shooting 37.4 percent from the floor — a big turnaround from last season.
Coach Kirkpatrick, who is in her fourth year at the helm of the program, has been progressively rebuilding the team. During the 2013-14 season, the team had 11 wins, which was the most the team had in four seasons. That same year, UNC-Asheville beat out Liberty for the team's first home win over their foe in 17 seasons. Last year could have gone much different if the ball bounced the other way a few times. In total, 10 losses last season came by single digits with six of them by three points or less.
This year, though, everything is going right for the Bulldogs and it's all happening at the perfect time as UNC-Asheville is slated to host the Big South Conference Championship. With the team holding the No. 1 seed at the moment — they had an eight seed last year — the squad could win it all in front of a home crowd and head to the NCAA Tournament.
"It would be amazing to be the No. 1 seed for the tournament," Major said. "Not only because we would be in first place (because who doesn't want to be in first place?) but we would also be at home playing in a familiar environment in front of our amazing, supportive fans."
"That would definitely be a great position to be in," Knuckles added. "However, our main focus right now is getting better each game and taking the season one game at a time."
There are some tough games ahead, though, with Liberty on the horizon on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome of the rest of the season, this group of athletes on the UNC-Asheville team can be proud of the turnaround they have put together. The future looks bright for the Bulldogs.
"I would like to see growth from game to game, getting better each opportunity we have, whether it's practice or games," Major said.
If UNC-Asheville can do just that, they will be a tough team to beat come the postseason.
Photo courtesy of UNC-Asheville Athletics