BUIES CREEK, N.C. — When he had a moment between fielding questions from media folks in the postgame press conference, Kevin McGeehan unscrewed the green cap, leaned back in his chair and took a swig of Mountain Dew.
Is this the postgame drink of choice for the sixth-year head coach of Campbell’s men’s basketball team? Is McGeehan addicted to caffeine? Did he need a boost after winning a close season-opening game over in-state rival UNC-Wilmington?
Not exactly. He was just thirsty. The sugar-packed soda was the only option for the coach of the Camels.
“There was no water,” McGeehan said. “This works. It’s a Pepsi product.”
After basketball games at Gilbert Craig Gore Arena, nobody is lacking energy.
If you’re ever driving on Routes 401 or 40 through North Carolina in the winter and you need a pick-me-up, skip the coffee from Sheetz and stop off on the campus of Campbell University. Buy yourself a ticket, which is as cheap as $10, and settle into one of the 3,000-plus seats.
This small campus in this small North Carolina town is home to one of the most fun shows in college basketball. You will not yawn. You will not be bored. You will not want to leave your seat to use the bathroom. You will not want to check your phone to look at an Instagram notification.
You will be entertained. You will be awed. You will turn to the person next to you and exclaim, “Did you see that?!” You will leave the arena wanting to come back again.
“What a basketball game,” McGeehan said after his Camels beat the Seahawks 97-93 on Tuesday. “If you can’t walk away from here entertained, I don’t know.”
The game had everything. There were dunks, three-pointers, controversial calls, turnovers, screaming coaches, an in-house band that played hits from yesterday and today, someone running around in a Camel costume and overtime.
Oh, and it also had Chris Clemons. If Campbell basketball is a show, he is its star. There were several moments on Tuesday where the showman would turn to the crowd after a big play and raise his arms, demanding they get loud for the home side.
“Every time you can involve those guys, you want to do it. (We) feed off of our crowd and how loud they get,” Clemons said. “We needed a boost tonight and I was just finding anyway we could to get that boost.”
Clemons gave college basketball fans a memorable performance on Tuesday, and a preview as to what could come from him and the Camels for the rest of the season. He poured in 44 points on 12-of-24 shooting from the floor. In overtime, he scored all 15 of the Camels points. The Raleigh native also added eight rebounds, four assists and five steals.
Oh, and he played 41 minutes, the majority of which he was as his team’s primary ball-handler, and he didn’t tally one turnover.
“As I look at the stat sheet, sometimes I can’t even believe my eyes,” McGeehan said. “That couldn’t have happened as a younger player for (Clemons) and that shows a lot of maturity. He made a ton of shots, a ton of plays, he made free throws when they mattered.”
While Clemons is the star of Campbell’s show, he is an unlikely one.
Unlike much of the well-known names in college basketball, Clemons wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of Millbrook High School. Much of that has to do with his height. Even now, in his senior year, the guard stands at just 5-foot-9.
ESPN and 247Sports barely had recruiting profiles for Clemons when he was coming out of high school. Rivals at least had a fuzzy photo and rated him a three-star prospect. Verbal Commits tabbed Clemons as a two-star prospect and listed him having additional offers from UNC-Greensboro and Gardner-Webb. High-major programs overlooked him.
McGeehan and Campbell were the first to take notice of the pint-sized point guard’s talents. The coach saw him play in an AAU game and then often sent his assistants to Millbrook’s games during Clemons’ senior year.
When McGeehan got face time with Clemons, according to a News & Observer story, his pitch wound up being foreshadowing. He told the guard he’d eventually become the school’s all-time leading scorer and that Campbell would eventually retire his jersey.
Clemons passed that first mark last season where, as a junior, he averaged 24.9 points per-game, good enough for fourth best in the nation. That second mark is likely coming, especially if Clemons can lead Campbell to the NCAA tournament this season, a stage the Camels haven’t been to since 1992, five years before Clemons was born.
With Clemons, Campbell has won 37 games over the past two seasons, which is the most for the school in back-to-back seasons since it made the jump to Division I in 1977. He and McGeehan seem to have the Camels headed in the right direction with a playing style that’s a lot of fun for them and an absolute headache for other teams.
“We’re proud of what we’re doing here,” McGeehan said. “I know this is going to be a great year and a really good team. I think this is the kind of way you want to start off a what you think is going to be a great, magical season.”
On offense, there’s Clemons, of course.
He’s a sub-6-foot stick of dynamite armed with the Hulk’s strength, Hawkeye’s aim, the Flash’s speed and the leaping ability of Superman. Clemons can do it all and he isn’t shy of the big moments. He’s sank three game-winning buzzer beaters in his college career. Perhaps this is why he’s comfortable wearing the signature Under Armour sneakers of another guard who starred at a mid-major in North Carolina.
On the Camels’ second possession of the night against UNCW, Clemons drove hard down the baseline and then took flight. If Clemons at all resembles Super Mario — for his diminutive stature, heroics and hops — then the basket is his floating brick. Hit it hard enough and a Mushroom might pop out. Or, for Clemons, a thunderous dunk could send the crowd into a frenzy, giving him extra fuel for the contest.
Clemons came up just a bit short on that particular play. A Seahawk jumped up and challenged him enough to cause his one-handed slam to careen off the rim. When Clemons landed from his brief flight and saw that the ball didn’t fall through and that the referee had called for a foul, he closed his eyes, clinched his fists, flexed and yelled. Then he laughed, almost as if to say, “Oh, I almost had him.”
The night did not pass without a parade of dunks, three-pointers, nifty passes, circus shots, pick-pocket thefts and eye-popping rebounds that made spectators say, “How in the world did that little guy just grab the ball over all of those big fellas?”
But Clemons’ first point of the night came at the free throw line, which is an unintentional yet interesting part of the show. You see, Clemons does not take free throws like most basketball players. Instead of trying to line up center with the basket from the charity stripe, Clemons stands all the way to the right. He started doing this as a junior and improved his free throw shooting by four percentage points. It was Clemons’ idea and it’s been effective. He was 14-of-16 from free throw range on Tuesday.
“Can you imagine if I thought of that and it didn’t work? He just kept making them so we didn’t say anything,” McGeehan said.
While the highlights that enrapture social media seem to be dunks or three-pointers from Clemons, his bread and butter, and the shot that always seems to be open is the back door cut. It gave Campbell the lead in overtime Tuesday.
Clemons brought the ball up and handed it off to one of his top co-stars, Andrew Eudy. The 6-foot-7 senior forward held the ball and posted up at the top of the key. Clemons acted as if he was going to drift out to the three-point arc, then darted past his defender as Eudy threw a perfect low bounce pass. Clemons scooped it and scored with ease.
Oh how we missed you, signature backdoor cut. ✂️ pic.twitter.com/I4L7gdTPuD— Campbell Basketball (@GoCamelsMBB) November 9, 2018
“It’s a typical backdoor pass. We can get it at least once a game. I don’t understand how it’s not scouted yet,” Eudy said. “It is tough to stop because you have to guard him at the three-point line so fast. I can honestly throw anything down there and Chris will go get it. It’s impressive.”
Credit to UNCW, that backdoor pass wasn’t there all night. But the Seahawks’ decision to attempt to deny Clemons that option led the guard to torch them for six three-pointers.
Clemons is not a one or even a two-trick pony. Take away his backdoor cuts and lanes to the basket and he’ll start slinging shots from behind the arc. Close out on him at that range and he’ll use a quick move to dash past a defender. And once Clemons makes up his mind about charging towards the rim, there’s little that will force him to alter his decision.
“I usually don’t even see anybody down there, for the most part,” Clemons said. “It’s always open for some reason. For me, it really doesn’t matter. If I’m going up, I think I’m going to make it, regardless.”
Open lanes for Clemons and space to blast off deep shots are often the product of McGeehan’s system, a variation of the Princeton offense. It’s built on constant motion and utilizes space, screening and counters. And it doesn’t create opportunities for just Clemons.
Eudy knocked down five-of-six three-point attempts and finished with 21 points against UNCW. Isaac Chatman added 12 points for the Camels and Cory Gensler scored nine.
“Recently, I’ve been told to shoot the ball a lot more,” Eudy said. “I think I took the right ones tonight.”
The Camels’ defense creates points for them too, and chaos for the other team. Campbell runs a 1-2-2 zone press that forced UNCW into 18 turnovers. The Camels came up with 11 steals and scored 25 points off the Seahawks’ giveaways.
“Every single time the ball goes into the basket, since the first day of practice, we’re in it,” McGeehan said. “We’ve just been at it. Teams are going to attack it different and we’re going to have to make adjustments. We weren’t even super aggressive with it tonight. It has a little bit of a cumulative effect. It has the ability to help control the game in a good way and force some turnovers.”
Tuesday was the first time that Eudy, Clemons and the other Campbell seniors had beaten UNCW. Clemons wasn’t the only reason the Camels won, but him getting rolling early played a big part.
“(Clemons) practices here every day,” UNCW guard Ty Taylor said. “Last year, he started off slower. It gave me the confidence and it gave our team confidence. He’s at home, he’s comfortable, he got going early. He’s one of the few guys in the country where, if he gets going, it’s hard to stop him.”
Clemons declared for the NBA Draft after each of the last two seasons. He’s worked out with the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets, but each offseason, he declined to sign with an agent and chose to come back to school.
Already the school’s all-time leading scorer, all that’s left for Clemons to accomplish is leading the Camels to a Big South title and a berth in the NCAA tournament to break a 26-year drought. But doing so is easier said than done. With teams like Radford, Winthrop and newcomer Hampton, the Big South is a competitive conference.
While it’s no guarantee that Clemons and the Camels will be playing deep into March, what’s certain is that they have the tools to put on spectacular and fun performance every night.
“I love our fans,” Clemons said. “And every time they come, I want to give them a show.”