The Coastal Carolina men’s basketball program waited 21 years to get back to the NCAA tournament before finally achieving that goal last season, and now the Chanticleers are doing their best to make it an annual tradition.
For the second time in two years and just the fourth time in program history, the Chants are headed to the Big Dance.
No. 3-seeded Coastal Carolina weathered a grueling first half with No. 5 Winthrop before fully asserting itself after halftime Sunday on the way to an 81-70 win in the Big South championship game before a supportive crowd of 2,957 at The HTC Center and a national ESPN2 television audience.
Senior guard Josh Cameron dribbled out the final seconds on the clock while teammates hugged each other, and when the buzzer sounded he tossed the ball into the air as the student fans rushed onto the court to share in the celebration – again.
“Right now it’s the same feeling. I don’t feel any different than I did with any of them with regards to it,” Chants coach Cliff Ellis said of returning to the NCAA tournament. “You put so much into it. You’ve been going nonstop in preparation for this. You play a non-conference schedule, then you jump into the conference schedule and then you come and play one season in a weekend and it will grind you. It will take every fiber of your body and you just go on adrenaline and you just focus and try to stay in the moment.”
It was the first Big South finals rematch in conference history and after posting a 15-point victory over the Eagles in the same spot last year, the Chants were equally as thorough in this win.
Senior guard Warren Gillis led the way again for the Chants (24-9) with 22 points and six assists, sophomore guard Elijah Wilson continued his strong tournament play with 19 points, Cameron added 13 and junior forward Badou Diagne finished with 11 while going 3-of-5 on 3-pointers for another impressive performance of his own.
Wilson, who had a career-high 29 points in the quarterfinals against UNC Asheville and 13 in the semifinals against Gardner-Webb, was named the tournament’s most valuable player while he and Gillis were both named to the all-tournament team.
“Words can’t describe this feeling. I really don’t have any words for it,” Wilson said. “It’s still hard to believe that I was fortunate enough to get this award, but I give all the credit to my teammates because without them I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have this award.”
Said Gillis, who was the tournament MVP a year ago and was every bit as valuable Sunday: “When I walked off the court, it felt like I passed a final exam, I got a 100 on a final exam. A four-year test and I passed it.”
After taking a disappointing loss in their regular-season finale at Presbyterian, the Chants regrouped and passed every test this weekend.
Winthrop (19-13) also had four players score in double figures Sunday, led by 18 from Keon Johnson and 16 from Keon Moore, but the Eagles couldn’t keep pace long enough to deny Coastal Carolina of a second straight Big South title – although they did their best for a while to make for a highly entertaining showdown.
Coastal Carolina led by as many as nine points in the first half while Winthrop never took a lead, and yet at halftime the teams were deadlocked at 38-38.
And the final handful of seconds summed up the half perfectly.
Coming out of a timeout with minimal differential between the shot clock and game clock, the Chants put the ball in the hands of Gillis, who then found Cameron in the right corner for a go-ahead 3 with 6.2 seconds left. Which, as it turned out, was just enough time for Winthrop to get up court and for Andre Smith to bank in a 3 from 30-plus feet to tie the game at the buzzer.
After a slow start for both teams, the game had fully taken on the look of a championship fight.
Coastal Carolina had initially built a 13-4 lead as Winthrop started just 1-of-10 from the field, but a quick 9-2 run – spurred by two 3s from Moore – made it a 15-13 game. And whenever the Chants ebbed, the Eagles were soon to flow and keep the score tight.
The teams had met just once in the regular season with Winthrop winning 75-68 on this same court Jan. 28, but that held little significance Sunday. Despite being the No. 3 seed, the Chants had gone just 1-4 during the season against the three teams they would see this week in the tournament, but playing as well as they have all year, none of that seemed to matter.
Nor did the end of the first half.
Coming out of halftime, Coastal Carolina scored seven quick points as Gillis hit one of his signature floaters, Cameron dropped in a short jumper in the lane and Diagne drained a 3 from the left corner to give the hosts as 45-38 lead as Winthrop called timeout after just a minute and a half.
“We preach the first five minutes of each half and in the first [couple minutes] we got a quick seven points and then that was basically it for the rest of the game,” Gillis said. “It got us extra energy and we were able to capitalize after that.”
Indeed, that lead would swell even further as Diagne later knocked down two more 3s on back-to-back possessions, one from the right side and one from the left corner to put the Chants up 56-44 as he backpedaled down court swinging his arm along with the pulse of the crowd.
The versatile 6-foot-7 junior had struggled with his shot in the quarterfinals before going 5-of-7 on 3-pointers over the last two games.
And with he and Wilson, who has been up and down this year, playing at their best this weekend, the Chants had just about everything working.
The lead would later peak at 70-54 when junior forward Tristian Curtis got a steal and Wilson scored on a tough layup and hit the ensuing foul shot with 4:59 remaining.
“I think we’re really starting to gel and we’re starting to come together as a team,” Wilson said. “And hopefully we can carry it [into] the tournament whoever we play.”
Winthrop drew to within nine points a couple times down the stretch, but it would get no closer.
With 26.6 seconds left, Ellis had Gillis check out of the game to rousing applause from the home fans. After scoring 14 in the quarterfinals and being held to eight points on 1-of-8 shooting in the semifinals, Gillis was as good as ever Sunday.
It was his 10th career 20-point effort with two now coming in Big South championship games.
“I think we know that he’s been the leader of our team the last couple years and his impact today has shown,” Ellis said. “He showed why he is Warren Gillis. He showed why he is the player he [is]. Had he struggled the first couple of nights? Yeah, I think he’d tell you that, but today he was the trooper.”
For the program, this marks the first back-to-back NCAA tournament berths for Coastal Carolina, which previously made it in 1991, 1993 and last season.
They’ll now await their seeding and draw on the 68-team bracket, which will be announced next Sunday evening. In the meantime, the Chants have earned some time to rest and bask in their accomplishment.
“We’re just glad to have been able to survive it,” Ellis said. “Tournament basketball is totally different. Nobody plays back-to-back in January and February, so you don’t know what’s going to happen. So you just play it a possession at a time. And I’m so proud of our team for the way they showed some resilience and just kept the adrenaline going. I know that they’re worn out.”
WINTHROP (19-13): Johnson 6-13 4-7 18, Moore 6-15 2-4 16, Smith 4-14 3-5 14, Cooks 4-7 6-7 14, Prescott 0-1 0-0 0, Okeke 2-5 2-2 6, Henry 0-2 0-0 0, Lopez 0-0 0-0 0, Scott 0-0 0-0 0, Davenport 0-1 2-3 2. Totals 22-58 19-28 70.
COASTAL CAROLINA (24-9): Gillis 6-14 8-9 22, Cameron 6-10 0-0 13, Wiggins 2-3 3-6 7, Curtis 0-0 1-2 1, Diagne 4-10 0-3 11, Enanga 1-2 0-0 3, Wilson 6-14 5-7 19, Ray-St Cyr 0-0 0-0 0, Freeman 1-2 3-4 5. Totals 26-55 20-31 81.
Halftime—Tied 38-38. 3-Point Goals—Winthrop 7-22 (Smith 3-7, Johnson 2-5, Moore 2-7, Henry 0-1, Davenport 0-1, Cooks 0-1), Coastal Carolina 9-22 (Diagne 3-5, Wilson 2-6, Gillis 2-6, Enanga 1-2, Cameron 1-3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Winthrop 32 (Cooks 12), Coastal Carolina 43 (Curtis 14). Assists—Winthrop 5 (Johnson 2), Coastal Carolina 11 (Gillis 6). Total Fouls—Winthrop 23, Coastal Carolina 19. A—2,957.