DAYTON, Ohio — Matt Dickey and the Bulldogs were quite an opening act on the NCAA Tournament's expanded stage, one that has more teams in the brackets and — so far — the same March drama on the court.
Dickey led a late run that brought overtime, and J.P. Primm hit five free throws and had a decisive steal in the closing seconds, sending UNC Asheville to an 81-77 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in a dramatic "First Four" opener on Tuesday night.
"I'll tell you what, I couldn't be happier with the city of Dayton," coach Eddie Biedenbach said.
There wasn't time for a curtain call. The Bulldogs (20-13) quickly headed to the airport for a charter flight to Washington, D.C., where they'll play Pittsburgh — the Southeast's top seed — on Thursday. The Bulldogs had never flown a charter before this week, and joked they felt "presidential" on their trip to Dayton.
"We're going to feel presidential again, and we're going to D.C.," Primm said. "So it's going to feel even better."
UNC Asheville pulled it out with a tournament-worthy performance by its best player. The Bulldogs led for only 51 seconds in regulation, before Dickey asserted himself. He scored 14 of the Bulldogs' last 18 points in regulation, including a 3 with 10.5 seconds to go that tied it.
Dickey, who was the Big South tournament's MVP, took only two shots in the first half.
"I came in at halftime and they kept telling me to keep being aggressive, my shots will start falling," Dickey said. "I started getting open looks, my shot started falling and it felt good."
Primm and Dickey had 22 points apiece.
Alex Garcia-Mendoza matched his career high with 21 points for Arkansas-Little Rock (19-17). The Trojans played overtime without Solomon Bozeman, the Sun Belt's player of the year who fouled out with 55 seconds to go in regulation. He finished with 18 points.
Each year, the tournament turns into a big stage looking for a star. Dickey became the first to take the spotlight.
"He made some big plays coming off ball screens," Bozeman said. "We weren't able to contain him."
Clemson 70, UAB 52: At Dayton, Ohio, Jerai Grant scored a career-best 22 points and fast-starting Clemson built a double-figure lead and never backed off in beating Alabama-Birmingham in an NCAA First Four game at the University of Dayton Arena.
In a matchup of No. 12 seeds, the Tigers (22-11) went on a 21-2 run in the first half and never let the big lead slip away, as they had in several recent games.
Clemson hurried out after the game to catch a flight to a second-round game against fifth-seeded West Virginia (20-11) on Thursday afternoon in Tampa, Fla.
Milton Jennings added 11 points and Tanner Smith and Devin Booker each had 10 for Clemson, picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Jamarr Sanders had 19 and Dexter Fields 12 for UAB, regular-season champions of Conference USA.