CONWAY — Senior guard Anthony Raffa said the message to the young players, the newcomers on the roster Friday night was that while there are bound to be mistakes along the way, if they just stick together through the rough patches, this Coastal Carolina team is plenty capable.
“They listened to us, and look what happened,” Raffa would say afterward.
What happened was a thoroughly impressive season debut for a retooled Chanticleers team as they went to overtime against the reigning Mid-American Conference champions from Akron and prevailed for a 74-70 win over the visiting Zips before a packed house in the first basketball game inside The HTC Center.
Raffa scored a game-high 27 points and tied for the team lead with eight rebounds, senior point guard Kierre Greenwood scored 19 points and sophomore Warren Gillis had 10 points and eight rebounds while the Chants got just enough help from the four true freshmen and one junior college transfer who made their Coastal debuts Friday night.
“It was great,” Raffa said. “To open up this building with all these fans and all the support that we had, I think we gave them a great ballgame tonight and we came out on top.”
Coastal had gone up 61-56 with a little more than three minutes left in regulation after a dunk from Gillis and a Raffa 3-pointer, but the last couple minutes didn’t go smoothly for the Chants.
Freshman Reggie McAdams drained a 3-pointer from the left wing for Akron with 1:45 remaining, and he soon came up with a key turnover while tipping and then stealing Gillis’ inbounds pass on the Coastal offensive end. Junior point guard Alex Abreu would hit two free throws on the other end to tie the game at 61 with a minute remaining.
Gillis was also stripped of the ball on the next Chants possession, but neither team would score again in regulation. Coastal got the final shot after an Akron shot clock violation with 3.9 seconds, but Raffa didn’t get the ball in time to get off a decent shot as the teams went to overtime.
“Me and Kierre as seniors, we just told them, ‘We’ve been here. We’ve been playing college basketball for four years, and we’ve been in this situation many times. Everybody just stay focused and we’ll be alright.’ And that’s what we did,” Raffa said.
Freshman Michel Enanga scored Coastal’s first four points in the extra period, bookending a nice layup and two free throws around a 3-pointer from Abreu, and then Raffa delivered again ... and again.
The senior guard, who has always seemed to thrive in the game’s big moments, drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Coastal a 68-64 lead and held his finger in the air as he soaked in the cheers from the near-capacity crowd. A couple possessions later, Raffa hit another 3 -- this time from the right corner -- for a 71-66 Chants lead with a minute to go.
And this lead would stand.
With Coastal up 73-70, Gillis was stripped again, but he got the ball back on the other end, gave it to Raffa and Akron sent the veteran guard to the foul line with 2.8 second remaining. He hit the second of two free throws to seal it and let the opening crowd finally exhale.
“It kind of reminds me of last year, beating LSU,” CCU head coach Cliff Ellis said. “Akron’s a top-50 program. They’re MAC champions and they’re going to compete for it again. We’re very fortunate to win, as we were a year ago. But it’s a great start. What a great way to christen this [arena] with a memorable win against a formidable opponent.”
With his four points in overtime, Enanga finished with nine points and seven rebounds while making his first collegiate start and playing 32 minutes. Junior El Hadji Ndieguene, also making his first Division I start, had five points and five rebounds in 27 minutes.
“It was great. I played the way I played because I had all those people around me, it just gave me all the enthusiasm and energy,” Enanga said of the crowd response Friday night.
Akron was led by 15 points and 10 rebounds from senior Zeke Marshall, the reigning MAC defensive player of the year.
Coastal (1-0) held the Zips (0-1) to 37.5 percent shooting and weathered 14 lead changes to secure the win, but what Ellis was most proud of was the 39-37 rebounding advantage his team posted against an experienced Akron squad returning four starters from a 22-win season.
“The thing that stands out is our front line is very inexperienced and that’s a great front line that Akron has,” Ellis said. “And to come in and outrebound them, it says a lot.”
NOTES: With the win, Ellis became just the second coach in NCAA Division I history to win 100 games at four different schools. He’s done it at South Alabama (171 wins), Clemson (177), Auburn (186) and now Coastal (100). The other coach to achieve the feat was Lefty Driesell, who made his mark at Maryland.
Ellis had hoped Driesell could attend the game Friday night, but he did have one special guest in attendance in former Clemson football coach Danny Ford.
“This is memorable and it makes you think of all the players that you coached and all the teams that you coached,” he said.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.