CONWAY — Coastal Carolina basketball coach Cliff Ellis had been billing the Chanticleers’ clash with Clemson on Wednesday night as the biggest home game in program history, and in retrospect it’s almost as if he was foretelling what nobody else could have seen coming.
A year after upsetting Clemson on the road with a veteran-laden squad, this much younger, far more inexperienced and thoroughly unproven Chanticleers team managed an even more impressive feat before a sold-out crowd of 3,286 witnesses at The HTC Center.
The same Chants that had lost their last five games against Division I competition and lost by 30 points in one of those games just a few weeks ago delivered an inspired performance against the visiting Tigers in a 69-46 victory that was nothing short of dominant and stunning.
And yes, considering what Ellis’ team did Wednesday night, there’s no arguing the significance of the evening for the program.
“I think it does a lot for Coastal Carolina University,” Ellis said. “A game like this, everybody knows what’s happening. I was told ESPN broke in and played the last few minutes of the game. It gives [the players] an opportunity to show who they are. It’s good for Coastal Carolina University – when it comes to admissions, when it comes to fundraising, when it comes to whatever. People wake up tomorrow whether you’re in Rock Hill, whether your in Garden City, whether you’re in Columbia, wherever, people are going to say, ‘Hey, what happened here?’ ”
Since a season-opening win over Akron, Coastal (4-5) had not defeated another Division I opponent while collecting its only other wins against teams that don’t even hold NCAA membership. Clemson (6-4), meanwhile, was coming off a 23-point win over Florida A&M and had rolled past South Carolina in its most recent in-state showdown.
And then this.
Senior guard Anthony Raffa scored a game-high 25 points and the Chants, with an entirely new frontcourt this season, outrebounded the Tigers 39-32 while holding the visitors to 32.1 percent shooting. The 46 points are the fewest Clemson has scored in three seasons under coach Brad Brownell and the 23-point loss is the most lopsided in his tenure.
“I thought they played very well, very inspired,” Brownell said. “... I didn’t see this coming. Our team played very poorly, not as inspired and I’m very disappointed, especially to the Clemson fans from this area that came to see us. We usually play harder than this, but certainly Coastal had something to do with it.”
The Chants had won 60-59 in Clemson last year on a buzzer-beating tip-in, but Raffa said the two wins over the Tigers don’t even compare. That was a come-from-behind upset and this time, well, this time Coastal seemed in control from the start.
The Chants hit their first four shots – sparked by five quick points from Raffa – to build a 10-2 lead before their shooting went cold for a stretch. But Clemson’s lead never got bigger than 17-14 before Coastal reasserted itself.
Ellis’ defensive game plan for his team was to pack it in down low and limit opportunities for Clemson senior center Devin Booker and senior forward Milton Jennings while forcing the Tigers to win the game from the perimeter. It worked ideally for the Chants as Clemson hit just 1-of-9 3-point attempts in the first half while ceding control of the game.
Coastal used a 13-0 run late in the half – including six more points from Raffa – that was snapped at the buzzer as Booker scored on a put-back to send the Tigers into halftime down 27-19 after they went nearly nine minutes between scores.
“Before the game started, coach just said, ‘Play loose. We have nothing to lose. They’re in the ACC. We’re in the Big South,’ ” Raffa said. “So we went out there and played loose and we took open shots and they were falling down for us [so] that got our momentum going and it carried us for the rest of the game.”
The game never got closer than six points the rest of the way as Raffa continued to lead the way for the Chants.
The guard has developed a reputation over the last couple seasons for seizing the moment in big games, and he did it again, playing with an unrelenting confidence. After air-balling a 3-pointer from the left corner late in the second half, he shook it off and sank another 3 from the right corner just moments later on the same possession to launch a 14-0 run that would put the game away.
“I think confidence breeds success,” Ellis said. “The more confident a player is, the more successful he is, but I think confidence breeds success. It’s contagious.”
And no doubt a confidence builder for the Chants.
In addition to Raffa, sophomore guard Warren Gillis added 12 points before leaving with an apparent shoulder injury, senior point guard Kierre Greenwood had 10 points and seven assists, freshman forward Uros Ljeskovic had 10 rebounds and freshman forward Badou Diagne scored eight points – including two big 3-pointers.
“I explained to you all before the season started we were going to have some tough road games early in the season, and I think this game shows what we can do the rest of the season,” Raffa said. “It’s a statement game pretty much. ... We’re still trying to get used to each other, and I think tonight we came together as a team and I hope this carries on to January, February, March.”
Booker led Clemson with 16 points and seven rebounds. There was plenty of orange in the stands, but the evening belonged to Coastal.
“I told our team, ‘You did more for Coastal Carolina University than you can imagine because when people wake up tomorrow ... people are going to say, ‘What?’ ” Ellis said. “... There’s not been a bigger night in [the] regular season in Coastal history than tonight with us beating Clemson. ... It doesn’t get any bigger than this. It will not get any bigger than this unless we can clip the nets down in the Big South Conference tournament.”
CLEMSON (6-4): Jennings 2-12 0-0 5, McDaniels 3-7 0-0 7, Booker 7-11 2-5 16, Hall 0-4 0-0 0, Roper 3-7 4-6 12, Fields 0-0 0-0 0, Filer 1-5 0-0 2, Harrison 0-4 0-0 0, Sullivan 1-3 0-1 2, Nnoko 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 17-53 8-14 46.
COASTAL CAROLINA (4-5): Ljeskovic 2-3 0-0 4, Ndieguene 1-2 2-2 4, Gillis 3-7 3-4 12, Raffa 10-17 3-3 25, Greenwood 4-8 1-2 10, James 0-0 0-0 0, Berry 0-1 0-0 0, Ashford 1-1 0-0 2, Enanga 1-6 1-2 4, Daniel 0-1 0-0 0, Diagne 3-8 0-0 8, Addey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 10-13 69.
Halftime–Coastal Carolina 27-19. 3-Point Goals–Clemson 4-21 (Roper 2-4, McDaniels 1-5, Jennings 1-6, Hall 0-1, Filer 0-2, Harrison 0-3), Coastal Carolina 9-23 (Gillis 3-7, Diagne 2-5, Raffa 2-5, Greenwood 1-2, Enanga 1-3, Berry 0-1). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Clemson 32 (Booker 7), Coastal Carolina 39 (Ljeskovic 10). Assists–Clemson 10 (Hall, Jennings, Roper 2), Coastal Carolina 16 (Greenwood 7). Total Fouls–Clemson 12, Coastal Carolina 15. A–3,286.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.