CONWAY — Back in 1970 when Coastal Carolina basketball coach Cliff Ellis was just starting out in his career, he crossed paths with the already legendary John Wooden at a coaching clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Telling the story Wednesday night, Ellis said he remained friends with the longtime UCLA coach throughout the years and would occasionally get notes from Wooden as he later progressed through his own collegiate coaching career.
And its that connection that made Ellis latest coaching milestone all the more meaningful as he tied Wooden for 28th on the Division I wins list with 664 career victories as his Coastal team rolled past Presbyterian, 70-51, before a crowd of 2,217 at The HTC Center.
He has been a mentor for me. Hes my hero. Hes one of my heroes. If I had to say one of my top five guys who have been significant or made an impact on me in this game, its John Wooden, Ellis said. And Im deeply honored, humbled to be even in the conversation with him. Im not John Wooden. Hes the greatest, hes the master, the king of basketball, but it certainly is an honor just to be even mentioned with his name. He was a great one, and his name and stature will live forever in college basketball.
Sophomore forward Badou Diagne had his own night to remember with 13 points and a career-high 18 rebounds tying for eighth on Coastals single-game list. Junior guard Warren Gillis added 14 points and played shut-down defense on Presbyterian leading scorer Jordan Downing, who managed just 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
And with the win, the Chants (17-12, 10-5 Big South) remained tied atop the conferences South Division standings with Gardner-Webb with just one game to go.
As for Ellis, he is now 664-424 over stops at South Alabama, Clemson, Auburn and Coastal. That mark does not include his 78-12 record at non-Division I Cumberland at the start of his collegiate career.
Wooden finished his career 664-162 with 44 of those wins coming in his short stint at Indiana State and the rest at UCLA, where he won 10 national championships.
It was near the end of that run when Ellis first met Wooden.
Coach Wooden was a friend. He was a friend of mine that I met in 1970 when I was a high school coach, Ellis said recounting that experience at the coaching clinic in Jacksonville. Ill never forget Coach Wooden and I sitting in a corner. There were two or three other coaches, and this is what I appreciated about him. He sat there and gave time. We could ask questions. And through that, hes always been like a mentor to me. I studied his system. He was too far away in California, but we stayed in touch. He told me to go see Denny Crum, who was at the University of Louisville who knew the system. But Coach Wooden would occasionally send notes and he kept following my career.
And to cap it off when I received the [1999 John and Nellie Wooden Coach of the Year Award], to be with him and be with his family, Bill Walton was there, it was just a great moment. And he stayed in touch with me. I will never forget him.
Even though Wooden retired from coaching in 1975, his legacy endures in the sport and Ellis players were able to appreciate what the feat meant for their coach.
I know a little something about John Wooden, and I think thats a tremendous accomplishment for Coach Ellis, Gillis said. Hes a smart coach and hes been through everything, and the numbers speak for itself.
The story on the court Wednesday night, meanwhile, was Diagne. The sophomore with ever impressive athleticism and a quickly developing comfort and confidence further teased what he might be capable of over the next two seasons as he continues to mature.
His final rebound came on a crowd-pleasing one-handed putback dunk with about 3-and-a-half minutes remaining, and his night ended soon thereafter four short of matching the Coastal single-game rebounding record. His 18 boards is the most for the program since 2010.
Coach has been preaching [rebounding] the whole last week, so I tried to be there every time they shot the ball or on offense. It paid off, Diagne said. I didnt really know [how many I had], I was just rebounding. But at some point I looked around and I saw 13, and I was like, 13? Oh. And I kept on rebounding.
Coastal never trailed in the game while making last-place Presbyterian (6-24, 2-13) look overmatched most of the evening. The Chants opened with a 17-4 lead, and although the Blue Hose scored 12 straight to make it a one-point game, they never would catch Coastal.
The Chants lead was in double figures for the final 12 minutes and peaked at 22 points.
It was a pivotal win for Coastal as it kept pace in the division standings. UNC Asheville dropped out of a three-way tie for first with an overtime loss to Winthrop, leaving the Chants and Gardner-Webb atop the standings entering the season finale Saturday.
Basically what it does is set up championship Saturday. Thats basically what it is, Ellis said. Everybodys worked hard. Our team is playing Saturday for a championship, and thats the position you want to be in. You want to be in it this weekend and you want to be in it next weekend. Weve got to take care of business first.
The Chants play Charleston Southern while Gardner-Webb visits UNC Asheville. The first tie-breaker is head-to-head results, and with a 2-0 mark against the Runnin Bulldogs this season, Coastal would clinch first place with a win regardless of what else happens.
If UNC Asheville wins and Coastal loses, things get a little more complicated as the top two seeds in each division get a first-round bye in the Big South tournament next week.
Were treating it like a do-or-die championship game, and thats the only way we can treat it, Gillis said. We want to win this thing.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.