BUIES CREEK, N.C. — This is quickly shaping up as a potentially special season for the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team.
In a clash of Big South division leaders played before a live national television audience on ESPNU and a record-setting crowd inside Gore Arena on Saturday, the visiting Chanticleers led the majority of the way and hit the clutch shots at the end to seal their sixth win in the last seven games.
Junior Josh Cameron’s two free throws with 16.1 seconds left pushed the Chants’ lead to three and host Campbell missed a 3-point try in the final moments as Coastal finished off another big road win, 61-58, before a loud and beyond-capacity crowd of 3,220.
“It was a great feeling to come out and get the win,” junior guard Warren Gillis said. “That was probably one of the best crowds we’ve played against this year, and it felt good to be able to silence them at the end.”
Gillis scored a game-high 18 points for the second straight game and Cameron and freshman guard Elijah Wilson added 13 each as Coastal’s steady backcourt led the way yet again.
The Chants (13-9, 6-2 Big South) remain in first place atop the conference’s South Division with the win and have been on some kind of tear the last few weeks with a one-point overtime loss to Winthrop standing as their only blemish in that span.
“We’re peaking as a team right now, and our defense is great,” Cameron said. “Our defense the last few games has been great. We held them to 58 points. That’s what’s really winning games for us on the road is our defense.”
The official capacity inside Gore Arena is listed at 3,095, and the 3,220 reported attendance was the most the building had ever seen for a basketball game.
But it didn’t seem to faze the Chants one bit as they were the ones in control most of the game.
Following a few early lead changes, Coastal led for the final 161/2 minutes of the first half and reasserted itself in the second half after briefly losing that advantage.
When Andrew Ryan hit a 3-pointer to give Campbell a 43-41 lead with 16:29 remaining, the Chants tightened up on defense and didn’t allow another made field goal for more than 101/2 minutes.
Campbell (11-12, 5-3) later got back-to-back 3-pointers from Luke Moyer and Leek Leek to cut Coastal’s lead to 59-58 with 21 seconds to play as the crowd responded in turn with raucous approval. But the Chants weren’t rattled.
Cameron was sent to the foul line for a one-and-one with 16.1 on the clock and calmly knocked down two free throws to make it 61-58.
“I mean, I’ve been in that situation before,” the junior point guard said, shrugging off the moment. “It’s two free throws, they’re free shots. The crowd was loud, but it wasn’t nothing.”
“It was big free throws,” Gillis chimed in with a laugh, setting the record straight.
Indeed, Cameron’s clutch foul shots forced the Fighting Camels to look for a final 3-pointer to potentially tie the game. After passing the ball around, they found standout forward Reco McCarter on the left wing for a clean look, but his shot sailed a little long and that was it.
“I felt like I had a great look,” McCarter said. “Minus the knee injury, I still should have knocked it down, and I’ll live with taking that shot every game.”
McCarter, who entered the day averaging 18.0 points over his previous nine games, played through an injured knee in the second half (he said afterward it was diagnosed as a sprain) and didn’t score after halftime. Meanwhile, the Chants targeted their defensive focus to versatile center Darius Leonard, who had five 3s and 15 points in the first half but only one free throw after halftime.
Campbell had been the last Big South team with a perfect home conference record and came in leading the North Division as one of the other surprise teams in the league.
But nobody is exceeding outside expectations more than the Chants right now.
“It’s special. Every game is important to us and we come out like we want to prove something to everybody,” Gillis said of the win. “… If it’s on TV or not, we come out with something to prove.”
He’d later add, “It’s all coming together right now.”
It seems that way. Sophomore forward Badou Diagne looks to be settling into a starter’s role at the four spot and contributed eight points and seven rebounds – all on the offensive end – in the win. He had two emphatic dunks, albeit one was soon followed with a technical foul, but he’s looked like a rejuvenated player of late after a very quiet start to the season.
“He’s got the athleticism, he’s got the [skills], he’s become more confident,” Ellis said.
Coastal isn’t getting many points from the frontcourt, but the team’s inside rotation is collecting rebounds and playing defense while the three guards handle the scoring burden. And the formula is working.
Saturday was just the latest example for these surging Chants.
“What a game, what an atmosphere,” Ellis said. “Both teams played their hearts out. I can’t say enough about the way that Campbell played, but I can’t say enough about the way we played. We made plays when it counted.”
Ellis also made special mention of the crowd inside Gore Arena. He has tried to urge Coastal fans to create a more imposing home atmosphere all season, and Campbell’s support Saturday certainly caught his attention.
“Hats off to Campbell for this environment,” Ellis said. “That was like an SEC or an ACC game that I’ve been in in the past. We’ve got to create that at home down the stretch. … I applaud Campbell. It was a great game. The nation got to see a great game.”
COASTAL CAROLINA (13-9): Gillis 6-15 4-4 18, Cameron 4-11 3-3 13, Ndieguene 1-4 0-0 2, Wilson 6-19 0-0 13, Diagne 4-6 0-2 8, Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Enanga 0-2 0-0 0, Ljeskovic 2-4 0-0 4, Curtis 0-1 1-2 1, Ray-St Cyr 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 24-66 8-11 61.
CAMPBELL (11-12): Ray 1-4 0-0 3, Leek 2-6 0-0 5, Ryan 3-6 2-3 10, Leonard 5-10 1-2 16, McCarter 4-11 0-1 9, Oliver 0-1 2-3 2, Moyer 2-4 2-2 7, Hamer 1-6 4-5 6. Totals 18-48 11-16 58.
Halftime–Coastal Carolina 35-32. 3-Point Goals–Coastal Carolina 5-18 (Gillis 2-4, Cameron 2-4, Wilson 1-7, Diagne 0-1, Ray-St Cyr 0-2), Campbell 11-30 (Leonard 5-9, Ryan 2-3, Ray 1-3, Moyer 1-3, Leek 1-3, McCarter 1-5, Oliver 0-1, Hamer 0-3). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Coastal Carolina 42 (Diagne 7), Campbell 35 (Leek, Ryan 8). Assists–Coastal Carolina 9 (Gillis 4), Campbell 12 (Leonard, McCarter 4). Total Fouls–Coastal Carolina 16, Campbell 12. Technical–Diagne. A–3,220.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.