Put-back at the buzzer extends Coastal Carolina’s perfect start

Only one week after Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis declared his team's surprising victory over visiting LSU perhaps "the biggest win Coastal's ever had," the Chanticleers may have topped it.

Tuesday night's momentous 60-59 victory over a Clemson team that won 22 games last season was more significant than the LSU win for two reasons. Coastal Carolina won on the road instead of in its antiquated yet raucous 1,039-seat gym, and the Chanticleers eked out the come-from-behind victory in particularly dramatic fashion.

Trailing Clemson by 12 points in the first half and by eight at halftime as a result of heavy foul trouble and too many turnovers, Coastal Carolina roared back to pull within one with 7.1 seconds remaining. Senior forward Chris Gradnigo missed a short jumper from just inside the free throw line with two seconds left, but he followed his own shot and scored on a put-back at the buzzer to silence Littlejohn Coliseum and lift Coastal Carolina to 5-0 this season.

"To beat two power conference teams, it makes a statement for us," Ellis said Wednesday. "There are a lot of teams that don't get the credit over the years because of the name of their schools and you have to win these types of games to get recognition. We certainly still have a long way to go, but to do this in a span of seven days, it certainly sends a message that we're a team that has to be watched."

Toppling a pair of teams from the ACC and SEC in consecutive weeks is an impressive accomplishment for a Coastal Carolina program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and had slumped badly prior to Ellis' arrival. The Chanticleers have won 28 games in back-to-back seasons, but they've lost on their own floor in the Big South tournament both years.

The conclusion to last season was especially galling for Coastal Carolina because it did not have its full complement of players. The Chanticleers finished with just eight scholarship players after a season-ending ACL tear suffered by starting guard Kierre Greenwood and the suspension of conference player of the year candidate Desmond Holloway as a result of NCAA scrutiny for alleged improper benefits. {YSP:MORE}

Ellis is optimistic his team can end the school's NCAA tournament drought this season, but he's adamant the Chanticleers shouldn't be judged by how they fare in a single-elimination setting in March.

"I look at a season as the whole body of work," Ellis said. "We've taken a program that's had one winning season in 16 years, and for us to put everything on the NCAA tournament, that's not what this journey is about. This journey is about the whole body of work."

It's a "pleasant surprise" to Ellis that a more frontcourt-oriented roster this season has enjoyed so much early success.

With Holloway playing professionally overseas and all-conference forward Chad Gray also having graduated, Greenwood, Gradnigo, guard Anthony Raffa and center Sam McLaurin have spearheaded the quick start. Raffa has scored a team-high 17.6 points per game, Gradnigo and Greenwood both also average double figures and McLaurin is averaging nearly a double-double in points and rebounds.

It remains to be seen whether that nucleus will be enough to finally propel Coastal Carolina to the NCAA tournament, but efforts like Tuesday night's win at Clemson show what the Chanticleers can do when playing well. Clemson was motivated after a loss to College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina was a known commodity after its win over LSU, yet the Chanticleers still pulled off a road win.

Ellis previously coached at Clemson for 10 seasons and remains the winningest coach there, but he insisted the nostalgia factor didn't impact him Tuesday night. He received a nice ovation during introductions on Tuesday night, then made his first win at Littlejohn Coliseum in 18 years a memorable one.

"Certainly I have a warm place in my heart for Clemson," Ellis said. "I will pull for them in every game. I put 10 years of my life into it and Clemson was very good to me. But for me personally, I didn't feel any different. It wasn't that we beat Clemson. It was the fact that we won a big game."

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