Monday, March 10, 2014

Coastal Carolina Wins the Big South (Recap of Winthrop v. CCU in Big South Championship Game)

The day after a very successful Trenholm Little League Opening Day Ceremony, I ventured out and made the 2 1/2 hour trip from Columbia to Conway to see a guaranteed state of South Carolina team in the NCAA Tournament as Conway's own Coastal Carolina "hosted" Rock Hill's Winthrop in the Big South Championship game on Sunday.

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.

As I parked my car in a spot marked "Visitor" in front of what might have been the Admissions building on campus near to the HTC Center, I was struck by the Palmetto trees, the water fountain in front of the HTC Center and the general newness of the campus.  As I got up to the entrance of the HTC Center, there was a battle of the pep bands going on with a nice crowd gathered to soak in the music.

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.

The section we were sitting in was behind the Winthrop bench, near the side of their basket with the band, cheerleaders and mascot.  The person who took our picture happened to be Devin Prescott's father.  Prescott is a freshman forward that comes off the bench for the Eagles. Prescott's mom was also there and his parents were featured twice in the Kiss Cam segment feature during a media timeout.

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.

The Chanticleers came out pretty strong led by guard Warren Gillis, their second leading scorer on the season, who scored the first four points of the game.  Coastal Carolina would extend the lead to 12-6 on a three pointer by Josh Cameron, the team's third leading scorer on the season.

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.

After Joab Jerome hit one of two free throws to put the Eagles up 18-16, the Chanticleers responded with a 12-0 run over the next five minutes.  Cameron was responsible for seven of the twelve points, including a three pointer.  His two point jumper capped the spurt and put Coastal Carolina up 28-18.

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.

Whatever Kelsey said in the timeout worked, as the Eagles scored the next six points.  Prescott capped the mini spurt with an emphatic dunk off an assist by Jerome.  The dunk brought a roar of approval from his parents, as well as the rest of the Winthrop fans and cut the Chanticleers lead to four, 28-24.

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.

The second half started with Winthrop's Jerome hitting a three point play to cut the lead to seven, 34-27.  But Coastal Carolina's leading scorer, freshman Elijah Wilson, who sat most of the first half due to foul trouble, came alive and started another CCU run. Wilson first tipped in a miss of his own layup, then buried a three pointer off another Gillis assist.  After Gillis hit one of two free throws, Cameron hit a layup to finish an 8-0 spurt and give the Chanticleers a commanding 42-27 lead.

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.

Looking to put the game away, CCU outscored Winthrop 10-3 over the next three minutes.  Gillis, as he had been all game, was in the middle of the spurt with a layup and two assists.  Wilson's jumper made it 57-39 with 9:42 left.  The Chanticleers would basically hold serve over the next three and half plus minutes.  A Cameron layup put CCU up seventeen, 61-44 with about six minutes left.

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.

But the host team, or better yet, the home team would not allow that to happen. Cliff Ellis' team would score six straight points, capped by a Gillis dunk, and the Chanticleers were up fifteen, 67-52 with 2:45 left.  The CCU students started to swell closer to the basket in their section, knowing the end was near.  The Eagles would get only as close as thirteen the rest of the way.  After Brandon Vega hit two free throws for Winthrop to cut the lead back to fifteen, Gillis and company ran out the final thirty five seconds.  The buzzer sounded and the CCU students rushed the court as the Chanticleers won the Big South Tournament 67-52.

Gillis was the man for Coastal Carolina on Sunday.  The Tournament MVP scored twenty three points on nine of fifteen shooting and added seven assists. Cameron added nineteen points while Badou Diagne sneakily added seventeen points and Wilson had twelve points for the Chanticleers, who shot fifty eight percent from the field.   Moore led the Eagles with nineteen points and Jerome was the only other double figure scorer for Winthrop with thirteen points.  CCU held Winthrop to thirty two percent shooting from the field.

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.

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