Playing the only other team without a loss in the Colonial Athletic Association, UNC Wilmington gave itself the inside track for a regular-season title with a 65-59 road victory over the College of Charleston.
Despite the Cougars doing their best to slow the pace down to a grind, the Seahawks were able to pull away in the second half behind the aggressiveness and hot shooting of reserve guard Jordon Talley, who had 11 points in the period and 17 for the game.
Early on, it looked like Charleston had the upper hand. In a battle of opposing strengths, the Cougars’ three-point defense thoroughly smothered Wilmington’s league-leading offense. The Seahawks started the game 0-10 from deep and not much better from the field. Charleston walled off the paint with its forward duo of Nick Harris and Jarrell Brantley, forcing Wilmington’s talented trio of guards to pull up for deep and contested looks.
The Cougars had a clear strategy to get UNCW big man Devontae Cacok into early foul trouble. The talented sophomore is the team’s leading rebounder and shoots an absurd 81.5 percent from the floor. It seemed to be working when Cacok picked up his second foul with 8:42 left in the first, but Charleston may have over-committed to that plan. They sacrificed ball movement for the assumption of whistles and missed a number of shots in the paint that could have given them a cushion.
Things turned when Brantley picked up his second foul, just after Cacok. The reigning CAA Rookie of the Year was a matchup problem for UNCW’s small-ball lineup for nine early points, but joined Harris and fellow starter Cam Johnson on the bench. Facing a reserve unit, Wilmington took advantage and ripped off a 7-0 run to take a 30-28 lead at the half.
With starters returning for both squads, the second period looked more like what we expected. Wilmington’s full-court pressure sped Charleston up to a level of discomfort and forced some ill-advised shots. The aggressiveness leaked over to the offense as well, which went right at Brantley and the Cougars.
The UNCW backcourt has three of the top six scorers in the CAA: C.J. Bryce, Denzel Ingram, and preseason Player of the Year Chris Flemmings. With the Charleston defense glued to those three plus Cacok, it was Talley who went to work. The junior visited the line 12 times in the second half and hit a backbreaking three. That not only helped his team crack open a multiple possession lead, but it kept Brantley on the bench.
The Cougars struggled to score without a key piece of their offense. UNCW’s defense didn’t force as many turnovers as it is capable of causing, but squeezed any efficiency out of a Charleston offense that is well below league average. Charleston shot just 27.3 percent in the second half, and even big contributions from freshmen Grant Riller (11 points) and Jaylen McManus (seven) couldn’t help them. A last-minute push by Charleston nearly made things interesting, but Wilmington’s 40-minute sprint had taken its toll.
Expect the Seahawks to gain a few more Top 25 votes next week. Taking care of maybe their biggest threat in the CAA will do that. Elsewhere in the conference, Northeastern’s loss to Delaware further clouds the second tier of challengers. But one thing is clear: Wilmington is the favorite until someone pulls an upset.