Coastal Carolina will have to wait yet another year to try to claim a postseason championship in men’s basketball.
Though a late rally cut a 24-point second-half deficit to 7 with 2 minutes to play, the Chants were unable to get closer and fell 85-74 to Fresno State on Friday in the championship game of The Basketball Classic at the HTC Center .
Fresno State’s 7-foot, 235-pound center/forward Orlando Robinson, a projected first-round NBA Draft pick, paced the Bulldogs with 20 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists. Senior guard Rudi Williams, who said he had been recruited by Fresno State, had a game-high 23 points for the Chants.
Coastal (19-14) won three tournament games to reach the title game of the inaugural classic, which is the reinvention of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
The Chants and Bulldogs were two of the final six college basketball teams playing this season, along with teams in the Final Four in New Orleans.
It was Coastal’s ninth postseason tournament and seventh in the past nine years starting with back-to-back NCAA tournament berths in 2014 and 2015.
The Chants have lost in championship games three times in the past six years. They reached the title games of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) in 2017 and last season, losing to Wyoming and Pepperdine, respectively.
“To have these opportunities is huge for us. These tournaments give us an opportunity to showcase what we do and what we’re about, and to be able to win one means a lot,” Coastal coach Cliff Ellis said. “. . . So to have this opportunity, because it gets harder and harder when you’re not a Power Five [team] to be able to showcase what you do. So I’m proud of our team.”
Fresno State jumped on Coastal early Friday, racing to a 13-1 lead about 3 1/2 minutes into the game. The Bulldogs started 5-for-7 from the field while the Chants missed their first five shots.
CCU cut the deficit to three points midway through the half before Fresno State regained command with an 11-0 run and pushed the advantage to 18 points at halftime.
The Bulldogs hit 10 of their first 13 three-point attempts and were shooting 62.5 percent overall late in the first half. They pushed the lead to 24 points in the second half before CCU’s late comeback fell short.
“They shot the ball so well and you’ve got to give them credit, and we couldn’t get the shot,” Ellis said. “. . . “This team was not known for a three-point shot barrage but they did it tonight. They played very, very well.”
CCU’s defensive strategy early was to double- and sometimes triple-team Robinson and fellow 7-footer Braxton Meah when they received the ball inside, but kick-out passes led to 3-pointers. Fresno State finished 12 of 20 on 3-pointers, while CCU was 8 of 28 from beyond the arc.
CCU 6-9 forward Wilfried Likayi contributed 15 points and nine rebounds. Williams averaged more than 20 points in the tournament and hit a game-winning 3-pointer in the semifinals. “Rudi Williams, my gosh what a great tournament he played,” Ellis said.
CCU season wrapup
The Basketball Classic is one of four postseason Division 1 tournaments, along with NCAA March Madness, the NIT and CBI.
After winning their final three games of the regular season to reach .500 in the Sun Belt and earn a No. 7 seed in the conference tournament, the Chants fell to 10th-seeded Georgia Southern 70-64 in their opening tournament game.
They then defeated Maryland Eastern Shore and Florida Gulf Coast by double digits at home in The Basketball Classic, and reached the championship game on Williams’ 3-pointer with 1 second to play at South Alabama on Monday.
“Obviously we wanted to go to March Madness, but playing for a championship is still a big deal in my eyes, and we’ve beaten some good teams,” Williams said. “Florida Gulf Coast is a pretty good team and I feel we got a little payback with South Alabama. Obviously it’s not the one we wanted but nevertheless it’s still a big deal.”
The Chants endured the loss of 2020-21 Sun Belt Player of the Year Devante Jones to a transfer to Michigan before the season, and Ellis’ absence for about two weeks during the season due to a bout with COVID.
“We want to get one of these championships,” Ellis said. “. . . One of these days we’re going to pull one of these off and hopefully we can get back to the NCAA and do that.”
The 2022-23 team outlook
Ellis isn’t entirely sure what his team will look like next season.
That is reality in the era of the NCAA Transfer Portal and players’ ability to earn Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) money. More than 1,000 Division I college basketball players have already entered the portal this year, and many teams are decimated by it.
Guard Garrick Green is the team’s only super senior this year who won’t have eligibility remaining next season, though several players either have earned or will earn degrees this year..
So CCU could conceivably return most of its primary players, including leading scorer Vince Cole, a St. John’s transfer who averaged 15.4 points per game and shot 40 percent from three-point range, and Williams, a Kansas State transfer who averaged nearly 15 points and shot 51.4 percent from the field and 45 percent on threes, which is in the top 40 in the country.
Redshirt sophomore center Essam Mostafa (6-9, 250) and redshirt junior point guard Ebrima Dibba, who averaged 8 points, 5 rebounds and a team-high 5.5 assists per game with a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio, could also return.
“I hope people will use their rationale, but it’s become like free agency. We’re like the NBA: what’s on the board, what’s off the board? So I don’t know. I hope so. I feel like we will have [a lot of players back] but I can’t totally answer that. We have a lot of guys that graduate too. I tell them if you graduate you’ve met your commitment to me.”
The Chants have added a pair of potentially impactful transfers in 6-7 forward Taj Thweatt from West Virginia and 6-3 guard Antonio Daye from Fordham. Both enrolled in January and have been taking part in team activities this semester. But Daye has submitted his name for the NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility if he chooses to remain at Coastal.
Daye was having a big season before leaving Fordham. In 14 games he was averaging 16.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
Daye, of Durham, NC, played at Florida International before transferring to Fordham last year, and CCU was reportedly among those in the running at that time along with Missouri and UNC Greensboro. He was productive at FIU as well, averaging 17.1 points, 4.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds as a junior on 2020-21.
Thweatt transferred from West Virginia after playing just 12 games in fewer than two full seasons. He played nine games as a freshman in 2020-21, averaging 2.6 minutes. Thweatt played in three games this season, averaging 3.3 minutes.
Thweatt was heavily recruited by Power Five Conference schools out of Wildwood Catholic High in New Jersey after amassing 1,773 points and 1,028 rebounds while leading the Crusaders to three straight conference titles and a state title.
“I just want to be on a winning team. I came here to have that opportunity and my name called,” Thweatt said. “I just want to be ready and can’t wait for the season. I think I should be a first-team all-conference player. That’s just what I have as a goal for myself and what I know I can do.”
Thweatt is still trying to determine who his teammates will be. “I’m trying to see out who’s leaving. We still don’t really know,” he said.
Have the players discussed which players will enter the portal and which plan to return to CCU?
“I don’t feel like anybody has really been worried about that,” Cole said. “. . . The main thing that has really been on our mind is winning and bringing a championship back to Coastal. Really everything like that will be handled in the offseason.”
Ellis, who turned 76 on Dec. 5, said he intends to return next season for his 16th with CCU, and signed a contract extension that takes him through the 2023-24 season. Ellis has nearly 900 wins as a collegiate head coach, including more than 800 at the Division I level, the fourth-most among active coaches.
“This university has been very good to me and I love what I’m doing,” Ellis said.
This story was originally published April 1, 2022 8:19 PM.