Heading into Monday night, the College of Charleston Cougars were nowhere to be found in many esteemed bracketologies.
It was a weird situation. No team since 1993 has missed the NCAA Tournament with 30 wins, and the Cougars were just one win away from reaching that plateau. Along with that, many of the teams in the bracket picture had double-digit losses, the Cougars only had three.
Well on Tuesday, they snapped their fate out of the hands of the selection committee, winning the CAA Tournament in comeback fashion against UNCW, 63-58.
“It’s just something that we’ve worked so hard for,” the tournament’s most outstanding player Ryan Larson said. “Whether we were going to get in or not, the goal at the beginning of the season was to win a championship. So to do that, with this team, this coaching staff, best in the country, is so so special.”
This team has been just that. Now, I’ve seen them live six times and every time, I walk away amazed. Their defensive intensity is on another level, and their offense would give any defense fits. Along with all of this, the team's cohesiveness shines through every play. It showed this week during the conference tournament in Washington, D.C.
Charleston opened action with the 6 p.m. quarterfinal, meaning the arena was emptied out when their warmups began. I stuck around and watched them warm up.
WELCOME TO DC!— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) March 5, 2023
Dalton Bolon just turned to the crowd and asked:
“WHERE’S JOE BIDEN AT?!?”
Hey, @POTUS… come over to ESA for the CAA Tournament over the next couple of days. Charleston is in your city.
It was eye-opening seeing just how cohesive and engaged every one of the players was in not only their own success but their teammate's as well. Early on in the game against Stony Brook, it showed as they roared out to a 22-4 lead at the second media timeout.
The offense was not great for the remainder of the game, but the Cougars still won by 22 points. Saying that Stony Brook was who they closed the regular season against, it was impressive that they still dominated like that.
In the quarterfinal that followed, Towson blew out rival Delaware, setting up another instant classic between the Tigers and the Cougars. CofC won the first matchup between the two in overtime and the second just 10 days before this matchup via a late run at The Six.
Towson made it a point to get in the head of the Cougars early in the contest.
Less than three minutes into the game and technicals are already called on both coaches pic.twitter.com/f4IxuFwBeA— CBS Sports College Basketball (@CBSSportsCBB) March 7, 2023
Just like those double technicals two minutes in, the rest of the game was a battle. It was one of the most intense basketball games of the season.
Towson led by five at the break. Out of halftime, freshman Reyne Smith flipped the lead for CofC, making five straight shots, stretching it out to as many as 13.
“A message that kind of stuck with me at halftime, was coach was talking about ‘just have fun,’,” Smith said. “‘Don’t worry about your shots, miss or make. Have a smile on your face and trust your body of work.’ I kinda just changed my mindset and relaxed. That’s where, I kinda get unconscious, and I really don’t think of anything that’s happening. It’s all coming natural.”
Soon after this, the tides changed when the Cougars couldn’t hit their free throws. Towson took advantage, cutting slowly into the lead and tying the game up at the 2:26 mark.
That’s when the “Team MVP” as Pat Kelsey has called him many times, Jaylon Scott, came in the clutch. He blocked the potential game-winner from Nicolas Timberlake, sending Towson home.
This set up for a third matchup with UNCW for the Cougars.
Just like Towson, the Cougars swept the season series, but it was not easy. The championship game on Tuesday continued that trend.
After a close first half, UNCW roared out to a 14-0 run to take a seven-point lead on Charleston midway through the second half. They looked dead. I had people in the arena, telling me they weren’t going to win the game.
Well, they did, and the Cougars' response to that run was loud.
Led by Ryan Larson’s 23 points, the Cougars pulled off the 63-58 victory over the Seahawks, cementing themselves in the NCAA Tournament.
Although nothing is known on how the selection committee will rank teams this season, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Cougs on the 12-seed line. I could see them being seeded higher, I doubt they’re lower than 12. Nonetheless, they’re making a deep run in March.