All weekend in Baltimore the UNC Wilmington Seahawks have played their best basketball in the second half. At times, the relentless defensive pressure applied by former Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts' squad has been compared to the way a boxer wears out his opponents. For the final 20 minutes of Monday night's CAA Championship, the Hawks jabbed and jabbed to chip away at a 12 point deficit and force overtime. In the overtime, Wilmington delivered a knockout punch.
Early signs pointed to this game favoring the Hofstra Pride. After all, what better backcourt to navigate Wilmington's full court and zone defense than an all-league duo - Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley - who have played on the same team together since they were twelve years old. The Pride smashed right through the UNCW defense on their way to near 60 percent shooting from the field. Green was in facilitator mode, while Tanksley knocked down open looks (17 first half points).
Wilmington, contrary to their first and second round performances, came out of the gates red hot as well. Rather than settling for jumpers, the speedy and athletic wings cut right to the basket to break Hofstra's own zone defense. Denzel Ingram was the star early on as soon-to-be-named Tournament MVP Chris Flemmings settled into a groove. Ingram scored 9 of The Dub's first 16 points.
Hofstra was able to shake off Wilmington's torrid start and finally got off their heels midway through the first. Once the Pride figured out the other half of the championship basketball equation and managed to get back and make a few stops, they really started clicking. From the 13:47 to 10 minute mark of the first period, Hofstra went on a 14-0 tear to leave Wilmington in the dust. Rokas Gustys - one of the best big men in the country - started to have his way when his counterpart (Wilmington center CJ Gettys) fell into foul trouble. Gustys would have 18 points and 23 rebounds in this game, and much of that dominance occurred during the Hofstra run.
The Achilles heel of the Pride all year has been depth. Four starters log more than 35 minutes per game and both teams were playing their third game in three days. Realizing they had taken Hofstra's best shots on the chin, the Seahawks (down 7 at the half) came out of the locker room ready to deliver some more body blows.
With tired legs and minds, the Pride would fall into the same second half trap that doomed College of Charleston and Northeastern. Wilmington locked in on defense, and used the opportunities created to re-ignite the speedy transition attack. Even in half court, the Hofstra zone could not rotate as quickly on Monday night as it did Saturday afternoon. Clamping down as they have at any point this year, Wilmington held their opponent without a field goal from the 12:30 mark until only 1:43 remained in the second half. In that stretch Wilmington went from being down eight to up two.
During this stretch, Green - the CAA's Player of the Year - transitioned from facilitator to borderline under-performer. The senior guard was 1 of 11 from the field for the game (6 of 6 from the line) before making two crucial plays to rescue his team from falling in regulation. Down four, Green scored a driving layup to break the field goal-less drought. On the next possession, he got to the line to tie the game.
At the start of overtime, Wilmington was still bouncy, Hofstra was wobbly. The teams went tit for tat for nearly four minutes before Wilmington's CJ Bryce converted a tough layup through contact for a momentum swinger. On the other end, his team got the defensive stop they needed. Hustling down the court, the guy who got things started on offense - Denzel Ingram - finished it. The junior guard spotted up for a three that found nothing but the bottom of the net with 34 seconds to go. Knockout punch.
Wilmington may have lost the top seed to Hofstra via tiebreaker in the final weekend of the regular season, but they got the grand prize in Baltimore. The Seahawks will enter the Big Dance with the defensive intensity and athleticism to cause issues for any team. College basketball fans will get to know Chris Flemmings - the DII transfer who became a POY candidate - and Kevin Keatts, who in just his second season has taken UNCW from basement dweller to league champion.