Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Welcome to the Big South (Recap of Campbell v. Coastal Carolina)

I got a message Thursday night from Matt Cayuela, writer for the Mid Majority and otherwise known as @MBHH, Myrtle Beach Happy Hour.  He's the man who knows all the happy hour places in the Myrtle Beach area.  Matt sent me a message Thursday night saying he had an extra ticket for Saturday night's Campbell v. Coastal Carolina game.  It took me all of five seconds to say "Count me in. I will buy dinner."

Immediately after South Carolina's win over Arkansas, I hopped in the car and took the 2 1/2 hour drive from Columbia to Coastal Carolina, which is located in Conway, a few minutes from Myrtle Beach.  The route is basically I-77 to I-20 East through Florence, to US 76 and then Route 501 where Coastal is located.  Along the way, I stopped for gas and a banana shake at a Pilot/Dairy Queen. Sadly I was driving, so I didn't have time for a Blizzard.

Despite driving past our meeting point, I quickly u-turned and parked at Tongy's Schmackhouse, a very good sports bar/restaurant located in the University Commons, a mall located right across from the university. I met Matt and he drove us over to the HTC Center, the Chanticleers new arena.

The HTC Center, which just opened this season, seats 3200, about the same occupancy of Rose Hill Gym. It reminds me of LIU Brooklyn's Wellness Center. It's a very nice arena and you best like teal, which is the Chanticleers' team color. Our seats were located in the last row of Section 114, which is dead center court. The HTC Center is the home for the Big South Tournament for the next three years and it's a worthy home for the Tournament.

Now when you are playing on the level of the Big South, you have to be creative in recruiting players. That's because there are a significant number of colleges in the North and South Carolina area, with many schools at higher D1 conferences. And both Campbell and South Carolina are very creative when it comes to recruiting.

In the case of Campbell and coach Robbie Laing, it's welcoming transfers, whether JUCOs or transfers from higher level Division I schools. Campbell has from my count five JUCO/community college players and four Division I transfers - forward Antwon Oliver (Iowa State), Darius Leonard (Kent State), Reco McCarter (VCU) and Darren White (James Madison). White was Campbell's leading scorer until he went down with a season ending injury. Campbell's style of recruiting is working as they entered the game 5-1 in conference.

In the case of Coastal Carolina and Cliff Harris, it's recruiting foreign players. The Chanticleers have five players from foreign countries - El Hadj Ndieguene and Badou Diagne (both from Senegal), Michael Enanga (Cameroon), Uros Ljeskovic (Montenegro) and Tristian Curtis (Bahamas). And having foreign players results in humorous banter. During the game, Ljeskovic, a freshman, turned over the ball. Matt commented to me "You know how freshmen are, especially Montenegran freshmen."

The Chanticleers jumped out quickly to a 12-4 lead as Kierre Greenwood hit a three point play. But the Camels responded with a 9-2 run as McCarter buried a three pointer to cut the CCU to one, 14-13 with eleven minutes left in the half. But the Chanticleers extended the lead back to five 18-13.

The Camels responded again with another 9-2 spurt. Darian Hooker hit a three pointer and was fouled. He made the free throw, then later hit another three pointer to tie the game at twenty. Andrew Ryan capped the spurt with a jumper and the Camels had a 22-20 lead with 5:45 left in the half.

The Chanticleers would respond by ending the half on a 9-0 run led by their three leading scorers on the season, Anthony Raffa, Greenwood and Warren Gillis. Gillis tied the game at 22, then Raffa buried a three pointer to put the Chanticleers up three. Greenwood would score the last two baskets and CCU went up at the half 29-22.

During halftime, CCU honored its over 250 student athletes that had a 3.0 or higher for the previous semester, including five students who had a perfect 4.0. Then right before the start of the second half, as Matt had warned me at the start of halftime, the PA system played "The Interlude". It's a video of the Chanticleer doing various dance moves to a song, which includes "The Robot", and the fans are welcome to follow along. Matt did his part and got up and danced. I just watched in amusement.

The second half started exactly as the first half left off with the Camels in a scoring drought. Perhaps it was "The Interlude" that affected them as Campbell failed to score for the first six plus minutes of the second half. The Camels had not scored in close to twelve minutes until Trey Freeman hit a layup with 14:52 left in the game. Fortunately for Campbell, CCU had only scored six points in the second half and was only up 35-24.

But that was as close as the Camels would get in the second half as the Chanticleers outscored them 15-6 over the next five and half minutes. Tristian Curtis started the spurt with two jumpers and Greenwood capped it with two free throws to put CCU up 50-30 with nine minutes left in the game.

Since most of my coverage on my blog the last several seasons has been the CAA, I have got to know the VCU Rams and their media/fans through Twitter extensively. Coming into last season, Reco McCarter was a highly thought of recruit who had been recruited by several major schools and ended up going to VCU. Because of VCU's incredible depth of talent, McCarter barely played. In fact, McCarter became famous among the VCU fans on when he played, which was mostly in blowouts.

Not surprisingly, McCarter transferred to Campbell, close to his home, received a waiver to play this season and currently starts for the Camels. You can see why VCU originally recruited him. He is six foot six, very athletic, can drive to the basket and hit the three. As Matt noted, the Camels have a lot of those type players, what you would call tweeners. Not big enough to play the #4 on the major college level and bigger than your average #2 guard. In fact, Campbell has nine players on the squad that range six foot four to six foot six. With the exception of the injured White and Ryan, they are all listed as forwards.

I was hoping for a good game from McCarter. But outside of the three pointer in the first half, he somewhat struggled. He missed an open layup, then fumbled a pass on what would have been an easy layup. In the second half, McCarter missed two free throws. Things were so rough for McCarter that on one play he got the ball and had an open lane for a layup. But Coach Laing called timeout as he started his drive. McCarter would end up with eight points on three of ten shooting in twenty seven minutes.

With the Chanticleers up twenty and the game no longer in doubt, the last several minutes were highlighted by the strong performance of the Camels' Leek Leek, one of their "tweener' forwards. He scored twelve points in the last nine minutes of the contest, hitting jumpers, layups, free throws and even a three pointer. Leek ended up scoring fourteen points more than double his season average going into the game.

However, Leek's one man late second half run wasn't enough as the Chanticleers defeated the Camels 73-59. Raffa and Greenwood combined for thirty eight points, ten rebounds, five assists and five steals. Ndieguene had nine points and eight rebounds. Hooker led the Camels with fifteen points.

The Chanticleers shot forty nine percent from the field and hit twenty two of their thirty one free throws. The Camels actually shot better from three point range, ten of twenty five, than two point range, eleven of thirty one.

After the game, Matt and I headed back to Tongy's. He had the wings and I had a burger called the Bear. Both of us agreed the food was quite good. With a long drive back to Columbia, I washed down three iced teas, much to the surprise of the bartender. After the third iced tea and the bill was paid. Matt and I said our goodbyes. I told him I enjoyed my first Big South game and plan to visit the HTC Center again soon.

Maybe I will even be there for the Big South Tournament.

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