Cliff Ellis and his Chanticleers dusted off their dancing shoes Sunday afternoon.
Coastal Carolina shot 58 percent in a 76-61 win over Winthrop in the Big South men’s basketball tournament championship game to earn a a spot in March’s Dance, the NCAA Tournament.
Coastal, the No. 1 seed out of the South Division, looked fresh and lively in front of a baying home crowd that certainly remembered Winthrop’s upset of their team in the 2010 Big South tournament championship game. Warren Gillis, the tournament MVP, led Cliff Ellis’ team with 22 points, seven assists and a couple of gym-rocking dunks in the late exchanges that sealed the first NCAA tournament appearance since 1993 for the Chanticleers (21-12).
“I don’t think anybody saw this coming in August,” said Ellis. “But the mettle this team has is something special. They didn’t play; they competed.”
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Sunday’s championship was Winthrop’s fourth game since Wednesday after knocking off Liberty, High Point and UNC Asheville in succession.
An Eagle team that gets 33 percent of its scoring from 3-point range was always susceptible to a bad shooting night in the tournament setting. Unfortunately for the Eagles (20-13), who won both regular season meetings with Coastal, it came in Sunday’s final. The Eagles’ legs looked drained, like they were playing in the nearby sands of Myrtle Beach, as they hit just 32 percent of their shots, including 8 of 26 from 3-point range.
"When we first started practicing we had two-a-days and stuff like that, so I wouldn't blame it on that," said Winthrop’s Keon Moore, who led the Eagles with 19 and was named to the All-Tournament team.
Winthrop couldn’t get its offense going, and struggled defensively against the hosts’ myriad mismatches. Coastal’s taller backcourt went to work on the Eagles’ sub-6-foot guards, working their way into the paint and shooting over defenders consistently. Besides the 6-foot-3 Gillis, Josh Cameron scored 19, Badou Diagne had 17, and 6-foot-4 Elijah Wilson chipped in 12. Coastal is now 18-3 this season when Gillis, Cameron and Wilson all score in double figures.
"They're a smashmouth basketball team," said Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, who said he had not yet thought about any possible postseason participation for his team. "They're coming right between your eyes. You know it's coming, but it's hard to stop it."
The Chanticleer backcourt was able to isolate Winthrop guards and drive on them, in part because of the Diagne’s success in the post. His presence limited Winthrop’s ability/desire to help-defend from the weak side.
“We knew we had a size advantage,” said Gillis. “Most of the game we were trying to get the ball inside to our bigs and once they made a couple of plays, that opened up the lanes for us.”
It was a struggle for the maroon and gold from the get-go. Winthrop shot 27 percent in the first half and weathered a 7-minute-plus stretch without a field goal. Coastal Carolina shot 56 percent in the first 20 minutes, out-scoring the Eagles 18-8 in the paint, indicative of the Chanticleers’ taller guards’ ability to drive in straight lines at the Winthrop rim. Given that, Kelsey’s club was lucky to only trail 34-24 at the break.
"In the first 4 minutes of the game, I thought the tone was set then," said Kelsey. "I never felt like we fully recovered."
Coastal poured fuel on the fire at the half apparently, as the hosts opened with an 8-0 run that stretched the Chanticleer lead to 42-27.Coastal leads the Big South in 3-point field goal percentage, and they justified that statistic by never allowing Winthrop to string together the trifectas that would have hauled them back in the game.
The hosts got 3’s, 2’s, dunks, pretty much anything they wanted during a rampant second half. Cameron buried a 3 off the dribble, before Diagne finished inside while drawing a foul. Elijah Wilson’s strong move at the rim pushed Coastal’s advantage to 57-39 with around 10 minutes left, but Winthrop mustered one last push. Moore hit a 3 from the corner and Andre Smith splashed in a triple after a nice dish from Joab Jerome to make it 61-51 with 4 minutes, 36 seconds remaining.
But Moore fouled out with over 4 minutes left and it went downhill from there for the Eagles. Gillis’ dunk with a couple of minutes left had the crowd rocking, as they realized an NCAA tournament bid was headed their way. Sunday’s win was Ellis’ first tournament championship in 39 years of coaching, and his first NCAA appearance with Coastal. While the dejected Eagles were harried off the court at the final buzzer by Coastal students storming the floor, Ellis jumped right into the midst of his players’ on-court celebrations.
“They’ve seen me as a stern guy and they know I’ll cut up. I wanted to enjoy the moment with them,” said Ellis. “I can still dance a little bit... a little bit.”
His team will get the chance to dance a little bit too.