Taste Of March: Coastal Carolina Seizes Rare Shot, Stuns Utah

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Coastal Carolina forward Isaac Hippolyte, right, and center Levi Cook (32) defend against Utah guard … [+]

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sun Belt Conference members don’t receive many opportunities to entertain a team from one of college basketball’s five power conferences – the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12.

That’s not how the scheduling model works. Most opportunities to face an opponent who has name recognition come on the road. The Sun Belt school gets a guaranteed paycheck of $80,000 or so and must overcome a superior opponent in a hostile environment. A fairer fight occurs on a neutral court in the early season tournaments that cover the college basketball landscape in November and December.

Sun Belt member Coastal Carolina University, located in Conway, S.C., enjoys a unique, ideal scenario this week. The Myrtle Beach Invitational, an eight-team tournament sponsored by ESPN, is being played in their home arena, the sparkling 3,600-seat HTC Center, on the beautiful campus in this small town 15 miles from the coast that attracts golfers, sun worshippers and tourists from around the globe who seek a laid back good time.

It’s an attractive destination for those aiming to hold off winter as long as they can. With brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the mid-60s, fans and alumni can shop for the holidays, swing their clubs or sip brews and gaze at the Atlantic during the ample time between games. Playing three times in four days against good competition lets coaches evaluate personnel, tweak rotations and modify the playbook, hoping their individuals bond during the time away from campus and class, forming a more cohesive unit.

Each team arrives with different goals.

Villanova has played in an early-season tournament the last six years and won each one – two of those seasons ended with a national championship. Baylor and Mississippi State understand how quality wins this week can help their seeding when the NCAA tournament Selection Sunday arrives. A rebuilding program like Tulane hopes to use the three games to solidify a roster loaded with newcomers in coach Ron Hunter’s first season.

Entering the week, host Coastal Carolina understood and embraced the special opportunity ahead. On Thursday night in front of their home fans, cheerleaders, mascot and a trio who played smooth, soulful jams during breaks in play, the Chanticleers walloped a young Utah squad, 79-57, advancing to the tournament semifinals to face nationally ranked Baylor on Friday on ESPNU.

“It’s one of those games that’s a statement win for us but at the same time we have 80 more minutes of basketball,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “The big test now is we have to put this one behind us. At some point we’ll enjoy it.”

Ellis is a legend in college basketball coaching circles. Beating the Utes gave him 845 career victories in 45 seasons in college. He’s 767-503 at the Division I level, which includes conference championship seasons at Clemson and Auburn and in 13 seasons at Coastal Carolina he’s built a consistent winner, leading the program to four Big South titles before it moved upward to the Sun Belt in 2016 to accommodate the football program’s transition to the FBS level.

In 2016, after his Auburn team escaped the HTC Center with a three-point win, coach Bruce Pearl praised Ellis, known as a crafty technician who keeps opposing coaches off-balance with an array of defenses and slick offensive strategy.

Coastal’s Ebrima Dibba, who scored 19 points against Utah, said his team drew confidence from their coach’s play calling, which assured them their game plan was strong enough to pull the stunner and set up two more similar opportunities against Power 5 opponents this weekend. All they had to do was play hard and execute.

It was the program’s first victory over a Pac-12 member but second in a row over a Power 5 school. The Chanticleers defeated West Virginia last year in the College Basketball Invitational. They’ve also knocked off Auburn, Clemson and LSU during Ellis’ 13 seasons at the helm, confirming what he said postgame: His players aren’t intimidated in such situations. They relish them.

Ellis used the platform to promote his conference, which typically receives only one bid to the 68-team NCAA tournament.

“I think it’s huge for our university. We started in little Kimbrel Arena. There was one winning season in 15 years. We went in the Big South and won four championships after some tough year,” Ellis said. “We made a transition to the Sun Belt and let me just tell you people something: you watch the Sun Belt, Texas-Arlington took Gonzaga to the wire. Texas State went to UNLV and wins. You can talk about these Power 5s but come watch Sun Belt basketball and you’re going to see it. For us, we know, we’ve got some major, major games ahead. They may not be Power 5s. But it’s a really, really, really good league.”

No argument from Utah.