Coastal Carolina celebrated a win Monday night on national television that has the Chanticleers a win away from ending the 2016-17 season with a championship.
But the revelry was tempered not only by the prospects of a sobering trip to Laramie, Wyo., on Tuesday, but by the loss of senior forward Colton Ray-St. Cyr to a knee injury that ends his CCU career and possible loss for a game or more of junior forward Demario Beck to a knee injury.
“This was a great game but it came with a price,” CCU head coach Cliff Ellis said.
The Chanticleers were in control essentially from start to finish against Wyoming in the opening game of the best-of-three College Basketball Invitational finals series at the HTC Center.
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They opened up a 10-point lead in the opening five minutes and maintained at least a six-point lead over the final 30 minutes to earn a 91-81 win that was broadcast live on ESPNU.
“We were supposed to be a lower seed than them, so this win right here, they will know who we are,” said senior forward Michel Enanga, who scored a career-high 15 points. “Us going over there, now they’re going to be scared. We have an advantage on them. I think we’ll be more confident. …We’re all pumped up and I think we’re going to do it.”
The second game of the series will be at 9 p.m. (EST) Wednesday and Game 3, if needed, will be played at 7 p.m. Friday. All games will be broadcast on ESPNU.
We are the seniors. We have two championships and we’re trying to get another one. We tried to go to the NCAA, we wanted to go but we couldn’t make it. So we’re fortunate to be here in the CBI and we don’t want to waste it. We’ve put everything we have into this. This is the last championship we can possibly play in our career so we’ll try to go out in a good way.
CCU senior forward Michel Enanga, who was a team member when the Chants won back-to-back Big South Conference titles in 2014 and 2015.
Both teams lost starters in the second half, and while the Chants know they’ll be shorthanded, the availability of Wyoming redshirt freshman 6-9 forward Andrew Moemeka for Wednesday’s second game is unknown.
The Chants lost Ray-St. Cyr to a right knee injury midway through the second half after a Wyoming player fell into the knee and it flexed backward. He returned to the bench with a large ice wrap on the knee, was limping noticeably, appeared to be in pain and was visibly upset. According to Ellis, Ray-St. Cyr was diagnosed Tuesday with torn knee ligaments and did not make the trip with his teammates.
“Colton being a senior, he’s hurt by it. We’re all hurt by it,” Ellis said. “You hate it, especially as well as he played. He was having the game of his life. He was knocking down threes, he was getting rebounds, he was defending. You hate it for anybody. Unfortunately it’s part of the game.”
Beck left late in the game after Ellis said he hyperextended a knee and though he was walking gingerly with a knee brace on Tuesday, Ellis considers the 6-8 forward/center a game-time decision. “We think he’ll be available,” Ellis said.
The Chants are already without senior point guard Shivaughn Wiggins because of an injury.
“It’s all about the next man up, and we’ve got a lot of people on the team,” Enanga said. “There’s a lot of potential on the bench that a lot of people don’t see. Without them we’re going to have to find a way.”
Moemeka was lost to an apparent back injury early in the second half. He was helped off the court after lying on his back for a couple minutes and did not return to the game, though he remained in uniform on the bench.
For the third time in the tournament’s four games, and just the fourth time this season, all five CCU starters scored in double figures and were among six Chants with at least 10 points.
Beck, junior guard Jaylen Shaw and Enanga scored a team-high 15 points apiece, seniors Elijah Wilson and Ray-St. Cyr each scored 14 points and freshman guard Artur Labinowicz scored 10.
Shaw added eight assists and three steals, while Enanga added two blocks and five rebounds off the bench.
“We just have to be better on the defensive end of the court,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “Not only did we give up 91, they missed 11 free throws so in essence we gave up more than 100. If we’re going to win at home we can’t play that way on the defensive end of the floor.”
Rebounding was also a team effort against the taller Cowboys, as six players had at least five rebounds to help the Chants hold a 46-34 edge on the boards, including 18 offensive rebounds.
“I enjoyed coaching that game. I enjoyed watching some it,” Ellis said. “It was one good play after another, both teams.”
Coastal raced out to a 15-5 lead behind some strong inside play from Beck, who had six of the team’s first 11 points through four minutes.
Wyoming pulled within five points at 22-17 nine minutes into the game with an 11-4 run that included consecutive 3-pointers by Jason McManamen, who scored a game-high 19 points and hit 4 of 8 3-pointers, and three-point play by Hayden Dalton.
CCU then opened up at 15-point lead with a 12-2 run that included a pair of strong inside baskets by Enanga, a dunk by Amidou Bamba and back-to-back treys by Wilson and Ray-St. Cyr.
Wyoming cut the deficit to seven points before the Chants pushed the advantage back to 10 points by halftime. The Cowboys pulled within six points twice in the second half, the last time with 8 minutes remaining.
CCU dominated inside scoring despite a height disadvantage, outscoring Wyoming 46-20 in the paint.
Wyoming hit 13 of 34 3-pointers Wednesday.
“We’ve got to continue to understand how well this team shoots that three-ball, and I think our team realizes they can drive it better than you’d think.”
The Cowboys average more than 78 points per game – compared to 73.4 for CCU – and have hit 344 of 988 3-pointers (34.8 percent). “This team is without question the best offensive team we’ve played, that’s why they’re top 20 nationally in so many categories,” Ellis said. “Our defense, even though we gave up 81 points, was pretty sound and pretty solid.”
Enanga is expected to start in place of Ray-St. Cyr on Wednesday, and if Beck is unable to play Bamba, a freshman, will likely get the start. Josh Coleman and Kevin Holmes, a pair of 6-9 sophomores, may also be utilized at center and forward.
“We’re going to have to really call on some guys that didn’t play to perhaps step up to the plate,” Ellis said. “We’ll get on a plane and go to Laramie and find a way to pull something out here.
“I’ve been to Laramie. It’s going to be a tough out there. I know we’re going to have our hands full in Laramie.”