The UNC Wilmington Seahawks became the first repeat Colonial Athletic Association champions in six years after taking down College of Charleston 78-69 in the conference championship.
As so many games have gone for Wilmington this season, their lethal trio of guards - C.J. Bryce, Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram - buried an opponent with shots in the second half. Devontae Cacok, who continues to be the nation’s leader in field goal percentage, provided the necessary balance with a 6-6 performance from the floor to pick apart Charleston’s vaunted defense.
Playing just 15 minutes from their home court, Charleston quickly set the tempo at a snail’s pace and forced Wilmington to play 47 feet at a time. The Cougar defense, which ranks top-10 nationally in guarding the perimeter, forced some bad shots from UNCW and took an 17-16 lead into the under-8 timeout.
The Seahawks started building momentum late in the period. Against the Charleston reserves, Wilmington’s blitzing pressure defense forced multiple live-ball turnovers and took the ball the other way. With their offense not producing off jump shots, the Seahawks took a commanding 11-2 lead in fast break points and held the Cougars without a three-point field goal in the first half. Chris Flemmings, last year’s tournament MVP and an All-CAA senior, drilled a shot clock-beating trey on the last possession of the half to give Wilmington momentum and a 31-25 halftime lead.
Just as they did against William & Mary in the semifinals, UNCW came out guns blazing in the second half. Charleston opened with a pair of threes and it seemed to open the floodgates for the Seahawk shooters. Wilmington drained six of ten threes in the second half to stretch the lead to double figures. On the rare opportunities when they did miss, Cacok (14 rebounds) was usually able to clean it up.
It was a fitting end for a UNCW program that felt they had unfinished business after narrowly losing to Duke in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Seahawks were the preseason favorite to win the CAA again, and they never relinquished the top spot.
This time around, the Seahawks have another year of experience and the added threat of Cacok as a two-way force. Their combination of guard play, shooting and full court defensive prowess is rare at any level. Wilmington is dancing again, and they still believe they can take down anyone.