ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Matt Dickey showed again why he's the reigning Big South Conference player of the year.
Despite being hindered by a hip pointer, the senior guard had 15 points and five steals to spark UNC-Asheville to its second straight berth in the NCAA tournament with an 80-64 win over VMI in the Big South Conference championship game Saturday.
After earning a trip to the NCAA tournament a year ago, the Bulldogs entered the season as the heavy favorite to win the league and they lived up to that pressure, winning the regular season title and the tournament too.
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UNC-Asheville has won the tournament three previous times, but never as the No. 1 seed.
The fact that that the senior-laden Bulldogs won on their new home court, Kimmel Arena, made this one more special.
"We've always been the underdog, so this year we really had to change our thought process because this year there was always the target on our backs," UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said.
The Bulldogs (24-9) only led by one at the halftime. But Dickey, the Big South player of the year, provided a key spark midway through the second half that put the Bulldogs ahead for good.
He had 10 points in the second half and added six assists and made all seven free throw attempts.
"I wasn't shooting as well as I liked, but they found me in the corner and I was able to knock that one down and that was big," Dickey said. "We were able to go on that run because of our defense and how we play as a team."
Jeremy Atkinson led UNC-Asheville with 18 points while Dickey's backcourt mate and tournament MVP J.P Primm had 16 points.
All five Bulldogs starters scored in double digits.
Biedenbach called Dickey and Primm "two of the toughest kids I've ever coached."
"J.P. played football in high school and he worked with Matt to toughen him up and Matt worked with J.P. to keep him on the straight [path]," Biedenbach said with a laugh.
This is the last year the Big South Championship will be held at the top remaining seed's home court. Next year the tournament will move to an as-yet undetermined neutral site.
"It was wonderful to win here at home," Primm said. "I told Matt [Dickey] this would be the best time of our lives. We were out there celebrating [with our fellow students] crying tears of joy. The fans were great. There were times I couldn't hear the ball bouncing on the floor it was that loud."
Keith Gabriel led VMI (17-16) with 12 points.
VMI, the No. 7 seed, was looking for its first NCAA berth since 1977. They had to win three tournament games to get to the finals, including an upset of No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina.
"I felt like we were playing with house money all week," VMI coach Duggar Baucom said.
A year ago the Bulldogs beat Arkansas-Little Rock before losing to Pittsburgh 74-51 in the second round.
With the game tied at 44 in the second half, Dickey stepped up big with a series of plays that aroused the home crowd.
Dickey converted a traditional 3-point play when he drove through on a fastbreak and made the layup and was fouled. After a jump shot by Quinard Jackson, Dickey hit a 3-pointer and added two more foul shots.
Dickey the slashed through the lane and dished down low to Jackson, who sealed his man off for an easy layup to give the Bulldogs their biggest lead of the game at 56-47 with 11:44 left.
The Keydets could never get within six points after that and the Bulldogs began to pull away.
"We called a timeout to try to diffuse the run, but I looked at them in the huddle and the guys didn't have anything left," Baucom said. "That's the first time this year that I'd seen that. They were just really fatigued."
Primm, Atkinson and Chris Stephenson of UNC-Asheville were named to the All-Tournament team along with VMI's Gabriel and Stan Okoye.