I have to give credit to my fellow Mid Majority 800 Games Played writer Matt Cayuela for getting me out to the gorgeous HTC Center on the stunning campus of CCU on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. He had tried to get me out to the Big South Championship last season, but as I noted in my previous article, I needed to coach my older son at baseball practice that day. This season, both my teams practice on Saturdays, so Sundays are now free and I can't pass up an automatic bid championship to the NCAA Tournament.
After I went to will call and got to my seat in Section 107, Row I, seat 7, I was quickly greeted by Matt and Ian McCormick, "The OmniPresence of South Carolina Hoops". Matt, Ian and I were the top three 800 Games Played writers as far as number of recaps and since I moved to Columbia in August 2012, all three of us are South Carolina residents. We caught up for a few minutes and we posed together for a picture. Matt, known as Myrtle Beach Happy Hour on Twitter (@MBHH), since he reviews Myrtle Beach restaurants and bars, went back to his seat on the other side of the arena. Since I had an extra ticket due to my older son wanting to stay home, Ian joined me for the championship game.
Big South has an interesting way of player introductions. Instead of announcing each team's starters, they announce a starter for each team, one for Winthrop, one for Coastal Carolina. It makes it seem like a heavyweight match-up and it's pretty cool.
But Winthrop would respond with three pointers from "Keon Squared", as Keon Johnson and Keon Moore hit from beyond the arc to tie the game at twelve. After Cameron hit two free throws to put the Chanticleers up two, 16-14, Andre Smith joined the Eagles long distance club, nailing his own three pointer to give Winthrop their first lead, 17-16.
By this time, the HTC Center was raucously loud. So loud that when Winthrop Head Coach Pat Kelsey furiously tried to call timeout, none of his players, who were setting up a play on the other end of the court, nor the referees could hear him. Finally, one referee turned around and notice Kelsey frantically giving the timeout signal and gave him the timeout.
But again, Coastal Carolina would respond, scoring the last six points of the half, including four by Gillis. His layup put the Chanticleers up ten at halftime, 34-24. Gillis had ten points and four assists in the first twenty minutes of the game.
Halftime at the HTC Center is full of fun. First, there was the Winthrop students vs. the Coastal Carolina students in a game of "Musical Chairs basketball". The student contestants dribble a ball walking around the chairs while the music is playing. When it stops, whatever basket they are facing, they must dribble to the basket and hit a layup, then dribble back to get an open chair. Two students are eliminated at a time. It came down to two CCU students and one just barely beat the other to win the game.
If that was just it, that would be pretty good halftime entertainment. But the Coastal Carolina games are also known for "The Interlude", which is about a two minute dance segment towards the end of halftime, where the entire crowd goes through various dance routines while the PA plays the musical interlude. It's fun, entertaining and inventive.
Pat Kelsey could not wait for the Under 16 media and called a timeout. It seemed to work as "Keon Squared" went to work with Moore making a jumper, then Johnson burying a three pointer to cut the Chanticleers lead back to ten, 42-32. But the Eagles could not break the lead into single digits, staying within eleven, 47-36 on a Prescott jumper.
I turned to Ian and said this is about over, Ian called a run for Winthrop. Sure enough, the Eagles would score the next eight straight points. Smith's three pointer cut the lead to ten, 61-51 which resulted in the Winthrop section's loudest ovation of the night. After Johnson hit one of two free throws, the CCU lead was finally down to single digits again, 61-52 with 4:36 left, plenty of time to complete the comeback.
Coastal Carolina won their first league championship since 1993 and clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. With their four top scorers on the day returning next season and the HTC Center hosting another Big South Tournament next year, its final year of a three year deal, the Chanticleers could very well be dancing again.
But as the students celebrated mid court, all they could think about is the now. And that means a NCAA Tournament game in less than two weeks. That's what March Madness is all about.