For the third straight year, the University of North Carolina Wilmington men’s basketball team are champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, but this time, it’s all their own. And this weekend, the league leaders will travel to North Charleston, South Carolina for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, where the Seahawks will look for a return trip to March’s NCAA tournament.
Unlike the past two seasons, where UNCW shared the title, this year the Seahawks completed a dominate run of its conference schedule, capping six straight weeks as the league’s top team with two home victories last weekend to close out the season.
“It’s really tough when you’re picked number one, and you get everybody’s best shot,” said Seahawks coach Kevin Keatts said. “To finish number one in the conference, you don’t have to share with anybody, you’re the outright champion. That means a lot to this program. I’m so proud of these guys for believing that we can be champions again.”
The third-straight championship marks a turnaround for the UNCW basketball program under Keats, who joined the program as head coach in Spring 2014.
“This program has come a long way in a short amount of time,” Keatts said during a Tuesday conference call with other CAA coaches. “In the early 2000s, it was a program that had a lot of success, but it had struggled in the last eight or nine years.”
But to earn a slot in the NCAA tournament, UNCW will likely have to win this weekend’s CAA tournament, as the league typically only invites the conference champion, though Keatts touted the strength of the conference, arguing that the NCAA should offer at-large bids to teams other than the tournament champion.
Keatts and his players said they were ready for the challenge.
“In the postseason, everybody has the same record, zero-zero. You have to come with it every night,” said senior guard Chris Flemmings. Sophomore guard C.J. Bryce, the team’s leading scorer, added: “Our confidence is really high.”
The improved play of sophomores like Bryce and forward Devontae Cacok, along with the team’s chemistry with the seniors, has fueled a run that saw the Seahawk’s put up the most wins in school history, closing the season with a 26-5 record, finishing 15-3 in the conference.
The record came last Sunday, when UNCW got off to a strong start against the Northeastern Huskies, notching a 40-17 halftime lead, only to see it wither to just five points in the second half. But behind a sellout crowd, the Seahawks withstood the surge and notched a 74-65 victory, securing sole possession of the CAA title.
Most notably, UNCW finished 13-1 at Trask Coliseum, where strong fan support helped boost the team all season, Keats said.
“I’ve said this all along, we’ve got a tremendous fan base. I’ve asked the fans to come back to Trask, and they’re back in Trask. Our student section has been unbelievable. I’m a proud coach,” Keatts said.
After Sunday’s win, the fans reflected on a season that saw their Seahawks as primarily the favorite, not the underdog to which they were accustomed.
“In years past, we’ve had to fight our way back, but this year was different,” said junior Ashby Burton, president of the Screaming Seahawks student fan club. “We’ve had great crowds and they got to see some great games. The fans were ready for us to win this year.”
At least 20 students from the club are going to Charleston to root on the Seahawks, while Burton said he expected hundred of fans from the area to make the trip down.
Waiting there will be the College of Charleston, the only team to beat the Seahawks in Trask this season. For some of the fans that have been with the team all season, the Charleston loss was a wake up call for the team, said Screaming Seahawk member Jacob Denton
“The Charleston loss was the turning point. We had gotten used to winning, but Charleston showed us we weren’t invincible. But it also showed we could bounce back,” Denton said.
After the Feb. 2 loss at home to Charleston, the conference’s runner up, the Seahawks went on to win 7 of its final 8 games.
If UNCW can avoid an upset to either Hofstra or Delaware in its opening game at noon on Saturday, the Seahawks will then be matched up against either William & Mary and Elon, both of which have won games over UNCW this season. William & Mary got payback from a 101-77 trouncing in Wilmington earlier this season when it handed the Seahawks their worst loss of the season in a 96-78 drubbing in Williamsburg, Va. on Jan. 28.