Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis has experienced plenty of heartache in the Big South tournament the past few years, so he took no chances even with a comfortable lead in Sunday's title game.
When Winthrop sank back-to-back threes to pull within 10 with five minutes to play, Ellis immediately called timeout to calm down his team.
Thankfully for Ellis, Winthrop never managed to mount a serious charge. Warren Gillis scored 22 points and Josh Cameron added 19 as Coastal Carolina routed the Eagles 76-61, securing its first NCAA tournament bid since 1993 after a series of recent near-misses.
In 2010, Coastal Carolina won 28 games but lost to Winthrop in Big South title game. In 2011, Coastal Carolina won 28 games again but again fell one win shy of an NCAA bid. And in 2012, the Chanticleers upset LSU and Clemson in November and entered league play as a heavy favorite before roster attrition short-circuited a once-promising season.
It's fitting that even after winning its half of the Big South and even with the entire tournament on its home floor, Coastal Carolina still had to endure some close calls. The Chanticleers needed double overtime to escape preseason league favorite Charleston Southern in the quarterfinals, then rode an outstanding defensive effort to defeat high-scoring VMI by four in the semifinals.
Winthrop figured to pose an even bigger challenge considering it had defeated Coastal Carolina twice in the regular season, but the Chanticleers shut down the Eagles by running them off the 3-point line. Only 8 of the 26 threes Winthrop attempted fell, not nearly enough to overcome 58 percent shooting from the perimeter-heavy Chanticleers.
As the final seconds melted off the clock, Ellis couldn't hide his excitement. The Chanticleers were finally NCAA tournament-bound after so many close calls.
Ellis has now taken four different schools to the NCAA tournament, a remarkable feat made even more impressive by the programs he has led.
South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn aren't exactly basketball powers. Neither is Coastal Carolina, but for the first time in 21 years, the Chanticleers will be back on college basketball's big stage.
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