CONWAY — When it comes to veteran options on this Coastal Carolina basketball team, coach Cliff Ellis doesn’t have many.
So in drawing up a final play in a tied game against rival Liberty on Wednesday night, Ellis knew he wanted junior guard Warren Gillis taking that last shot, and the only three-year Chanticleer on the roster didn’t disappoint.
Receiving the inbounds pass with 22.3 seconds left, Gillis let the clock run down to about eight seconds before he started his drive left, patiently adjusted back the other way when nothing materialized and then flashed a quick pump fake to set up a short jumper from just right of the lane. It banked off the glass and in with 1.6 remaining, and soon enough the Chants were celebrating another victory -- and a big one.
As Liberty missed on a final 3-point attempt at the other end, Coastal sealed a 66-64 result for its fifth win in the last six games.
And led by Gillis’ game-high 18 points, the surging Chants rewarded the small crowd that weathered the ice and cold to make it to The HTC Center with not only a thrilling back-and-forth rivalry win, but one that vaults them into sole possession of first place in the Big South’s South Division.
“I just wanted the ball in his hands. That was the bottom line -- put the ball in his hands, let him make the play,” Ellis said of Gillis’ game-winner. “We wanted to make sure he made his move right around eight seconds, and he had guys around him that if he didn’t feel he had the shot or could draw the foul he could pitch it. ... Fortunately it worked.”
The 18 points was Gillis’ third-highest total of the season, and that final basket was no doubt his highlight thus far. The pump fake freed him for a clean look against 6-foot-9 forward Tomasz Gielo and the shot took a smooth carom right off the backboard and into the net.
“The first time I didn’t see a shot, and I ended up turning around and saw that I had to get a shot off and I took a shot I was comfortable with,” Gillis said. “... As long as I get into the mid-range, I feel I can make any shot.”
Junior point guard Josh Cameron and freshman guard Elijah Wilson added 13 points each and sophomore forward Badou Diagne finished with 11.
The Chants (12-9, 5-2 Big South) actually trailed by five points -- their largest deficit of the game -- with less than three and a half minutes remaining before Cameron knocked down a big 3-pointer to make it 60-58. After Liberty (9-13, 3-4) came back with a second-chance layup, Diagne drained another 3 for Coastal to make it a one-point game.
Then senior center El Hadji Ndieguene came through with a clutch steal on the defensive end, Wilson hit one of two free throws to tie the game and after another Flames turnover, he dropped in a long jumper from the baseline for a 64-62 Chants lead with a little less than a minute to play.
The Flames got an emphatic putback basket from forward Andrew Smith to tie it again, and Coastal then called timeout to design that final play for Gillis.
“He’s the leader of the team,” Ellis said. “He’s the only veteran guy. He’s the only guy that’s been here for more than a year that plays. He’s a three-year player. Experience down the stretch you want.”
After initially showing 1.2 seconds following Gillis’ bucket, the game clock was adjusted to 1.6 and Liberty inbounded to midcourt to call timeout with 1.3 left. The Flames ended up settling for a long 3-point try by forward Antwan Burrus that was well off the mark as the game came to an end.
“It was a very emotional game because of what happened last year, but also because we want to show that we’re taking new steps here this year and we’ve got something we’re working towards and that’s a championship,” Gillis said.
As for last year, it was Liberty who had ended Coastal’s season last March in this building with a lopsided upset in the first round of the Big South tournament.
It was a different story this time around as no Liberty starter scored more than 11 points -- Burrus had 15 off the bench -- and the Flames hit just 5-of-16 3s.
“If you had to give a game ball, you give it to every player who was playing defense because our defense won this game,” Ellis said. “We played probably our best man-to-man defense throughout the game.”
And with the win, Coastal took sole control of first place in the division as former co-leaders UNC Asheville and Winthrop both lost Wednesday night.
More importantly, the Chants are playing as well as they have in the last couple years with this stretch of five wins in six games where the only loss came by one point in overtime.
“I think last year we would not win this kind of game,” Ndieguene said. “At the same time, we’ve realized you have to play defense and if your defense is good you have a great chance of winning. ... I think it speaks to our maturity, and I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point.”
LIBERTY (9-13): Smith 5-6 1-2 11, Gielo 3-8 2-2 10, Coronado 1-3 1-2 3, Marshall 2-11 4-4 10, Sanders 3-5 2-2 8, Roberts 2-3 0-0 5, Vander Pol 0-0 0-0 0, Retic 1-1 0-0 2, Burrus 6-15 3-4 15. Totals 23-52 13-16 64.
COASTAL CAROLINA (12-9): Diagne 4-6 1-2 11, Ndieguene 1-3 0-0 2, Gillis 5-10 8-9 18, Cameron 4-10 2-2 13, Wilson 5-9 2-6 13, Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Enanga 1-3 0-0 3, Ljeskovic 2-4 2-3 6, Ray-St Cyr 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-47 15-22 66.
Halftime–Liberty 32-31. 3-Point Goals–Liberty 5-16 (Gielo 2-3, Marshall 2-9, Roberts 1-1, Burrus 0-1, Sanders 0-2), Coastal Carolina 7-16 (Cameron 3-5, Diagne 2-4, Enanga 1-1, Wilson 1-3, Ray-St Cyr 0-1, Smith 0-1, Gillis 0-1). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Liberty 35 (Gielo 8), Coastal Carolina 26 (Wilson 5). Assists–Liberty 12 (Sanders 7), Coastal Carolina 9 (Gillis 3). Total Fouls–Liberty 19, Coastal Carolina 16. A–2,471.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.