Zac Cuthbertson has led Coastal Carolina basketball as senior
It was looking like Coastal Carolina’s second appearance in the Roman College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament was going to be a lot more abrupt than its first.
The Chanticleers, who reached the final series of the 16-team CBI tournament in 2017, trailed Howard by 14 points with 13 minutes to play Wednesday night at the HTC Center.
But the Chants took the lead with an 18-2 run behind some key points from players off the bench and pulled away from Howard for an 81-72 opening-round win.
Coastal (16-16) will travel to West Virginia (15-20) in the second round Monday. The Mountaineers defeated Grand Canyon 77-63 Wednesday.
“They love their basketball and it’s a great test,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “It’s a great opportunity to go into West Virginia and get that experience, and we’re on a national stage.”
The Mountaineers are a shell of the team that was ranked 13th in the first AP Preseason Top 25 Poll released in October, and while they struggled through most of the season, they are finishing strong.
West Virginia has lost four key players in center Sagaba Konate, guard James “Beetle” Bolden and forwards Wes Harris and Esa Ahmad to injuries or dismissals since the start of the season.
It struggled to a 4-14 record in the Big 12 before defeating Oklahoma and then No. 8 Texas Tech to reach the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament, and is 5-3 in its last eight games.
“It’s another great opportunity, another great school, a Power Five school, so any time we can get a chance to play a top school in the country it’s pretty good,” said CCU senior forward Zac Cuthbertson, who is playing this postseason with a wrap on a sprained left knee.
Junior guard Tyrell Gumbs-Frater paced the Chants on Wednesday with 22 points, including 5 of 11 from three-point range, and led a long range barrage in the second half, when the Chants hit 8 of 16 shots from behind the arc.
Freshman guard Ebrima Dibba nearly recorded a triple-double with 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and Cuthbertson extended his collegiate career with his eighth double-double of the season and 13th in his two years at Coastal with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
“I’m definitely not ready for my career to be over,” said Cuthbertson, who hopes to play professionally at the conclusion of the school year. “I love putting this Coastal Carolina jersey on. As many times as I can put this jersey on I’m going to do it. I love winning. This team loves winning. We didn’t get invited to this tournament and accept it for no reason, so our goal is to win it.”
Coastal outscored Howard (17-17), which tied for third place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with a 10-6 league record, 42-19 over the final 13 minutes.
Howard sophomore point guard R.J. Cole, the MEAC Player of the Year, scored 14 points and was just 4 of 18 from the field including 2 of 8 from three-point range.
The Bison, who were outrebounded 53-34, overcame his rare poor performance for much of the game, but it caught up to them late. Junior 6-6 guard Charles Williams paced the Bison with 17 points.
Coastal got 34 points from its bench, led by Gumbs-Frater, sophomore guard Tre Brown, who hit a pair of key 3-pointers late, and freshman forward Isaac Hippolyte, who contributed four points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes.
Senior guard Ajay Sanders started but was limited to nine first-half minutes because of back spasms.
“We had three freshmen that played tonight that got great postseason experience,” Ellis said. “. . . We had to depend on a lot of young guys. Our bench came through. Our bench won this game for us. They hit some pretty big shots down the stretch.”
Coastal, which shot just 37.5 percent for the game, came out cold, missing 10 of its first 14 shots to fall behind 13-8. Howard led by as many as 10 points in the first half and took a five-point lead into halftime.
The Bison stretched the lead to 11 points by starting the second half on an 11-5 run that included 3-pointers by Kyle Foster, Cole and Williams, and it was pushed to 14 with 13 minutes to play following three Foster free throws.
A Gumbs-Frater basket in the paint and DeVante Jones steal and layin on the ensuing inbounds pass started an 8-0 run that concluded with a Cuthbertson three-point play and cut the deficit to six points.
The Chants extended the run to 18-2 to take their first lead since they led 4-2, with the final 10 points in the run coming on 3-pointers by Gumbs-Frater and Brown, two free throws by Jones and a Gumbs-Frater put-back that put the Chants up 57-55 with 9 minutes to play.
Treys by Gumbs-Frater, Jones and Dibba helped the Chants open up a 69-60 lead with 3 minutes left and Howard got no closer than six the rest of the way.
Coastal won three games in the CBI in 2017 over Hampton, Loyola (Maryland) and Illinois-Chicago to reach the best-of-three final series, which it lost to Wyoming in three games.
“Anything with a championship in it, I want to get it,” Cuthbertson said. “No matter what tournament it is, no matter who I’m playing – I could be playing against 5-year-olds – as long as I get a chance to play the game I love to play and my team gets another chance to do something great for Coastal and for this community, for Conway, it’s a great thing.”