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Coastal Carolina clinches Big South regular season title

CONWAY Queen’s “We Are the Champions” serenaded a Coastal Carolina basketball team for the first time in 17 years Thursday.

Minutes after the confetti flew inside Kimbel Arena, the Chanticleers, already wearing Big South regular-season championship T-shirts, took turns cutting down the nets. From probation to elation, Coastal is finally back on top.

Coastal clinched the school’s first regular-season championship since 1991 with a 71-48 win over Liberty. The Chants (25-5, 14-3) won’t have to share the spoils, winning the title outright and claiming the No. 1 seed in the Big South tournament with High Point’s upset win over Winthrop.

“It feels like a great success to finally get it,” Coastal senior forward Logan Johnson said. “Still, there is a piece of me that can’t quite celebrate yet. We’ve got four more games left before I can get really excited. We can’t fully celebrate until we get that other championship.”

The Big South regular-season champion now earns an automatic bid into the 32-team Postseason NIT, but the Chants won’t be fully satisfied unless they win the Big South tournament and make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1993.

It’s been a long, painful return to glory for the Chants. After Russ Bergman led the program to prominence and two NCAA tournaments in the early 1990s, Coastal was stricken with probation and didn't have another winning record until Buzz Peterson's first campaign in 2005-06.

The Chants were just 24-35 in coach Cliff Ellis’ first two seasons, but they have defied preseason expectations. Picked to finish eighth in the Big South, Coastal has now set school single-season records for total and conference wins. It was the school’s fifth regular-season championship.

“It’s gratifying to me in many ways,” Ellis said. “The last 17 years have been tough here. To be able to do it makes me feel good, but the happiness I get is seeing these [players]. I’ve been coaching a long time and been able to go through this, but there is nothing like watching these guys celebrate the culmination of hard work.”

In reality, the hardest work is yet to come. Coastal hosts VMI Saturday before opening play in the Big South tournament on Tuesday. Coastal will meet either Gardner-Webb or face the Keydets -- those teams are tied for the final tournament berth at 5-12 -- in a rematch of the regular-season finale.

Coastal will play each of its Big South tournament games inside Kimbel Arena, where it has a 14-1 record this season. The Chants had few problems dismantling the Flames in the same fashion they have so many other visitors this season.

Back-to-back 3-point plays by Chad Gray midway through the first half helped Coastal build a 34-15 halftime lead. Liberty’s deficit kept growing after the break.

The Flames switched back and forth between man-to-man and zone defenses, but the Chants shot 48.3 percent in the first half and cruised down the stretch. Liberty committed 18 turnovers and shot just 32.7 percent.

In the end it was just another home blowout for Coastal. Yet, this was unlike any home win in school history. Coastal had advanced past the conference tournament twice, appearing in the 1991 and 1993 NCAA tournaments.

But the Chants didn’t clinch either berth on their home floor (technically, Coastal advanced to the Big Dance in 1991 by winning a play-in game). This time they clinched a bid to college’s basketball second-tier tournament and gave themselves optimal positioning to earn a spot in the premier showcase.

“We’re definitely not satisfied,” Coastal senior forward Joseph Harris said. “We feel like it’s our tournament to take. If things go right for us -- we keep playing hard and no injuries -- we should be the 2010 champions of the Big South when it’s all said and done.”