On the eve of Tuesday, March 6th, the College of Charleston men’s basketball team took part in what seemed like a sports movie. But unlike Air Bud or Hoosiers, this was an authentic experience that fans and students of the Cougars will never forget. It was all there – the deafening crowd, the history in the air, the villainous sharpshooters and most importantly, the come behind victory for the hometown team.
Standing between Charleston and the end of a 19 – year NCAA tournament drought stood one thing: Vasa Pusica and the CAA’s #2 seed Northeastern. For the majority of this game, it did not seem as though the Cougars would complete this story with the fairy-tale ending they deserved.
The Northeastern Huskies hit the ground running right from the opening tip. The Huskies grabbed hold of the lead by scoring the game’s first bucket just a minute in. That lead is something that Northeastern grew very accustomed to, as they held onto it for the entirety of the game’s two regulation periods.
While the Huskies offense needed no time to get rolling, the Cougars felt the intensity of the moment. Charleston only converted two of their first 12 shot attempts eight minutes into the game.
While open shots weren’t falling like the team was used to, the offense did manage to draw contact and convert on their opportunities. The Cougars, led by Joe Chealey, took charge at the free throw line. In the first half, Chealey went 6-6 at the line to convert six of the team’s eight free throws, all without any misses.
Offensive woes plagued the College in the game’s opening period. They shot a horrendous 24% from the field – an astonishing number when compared to Northeastern’s clip of 50%.
Defensively, things weren’t much better for the Cougars. They allowed three separate Huskies to score nine points or more in the first half. When things looked about as bad they could for the hometown squad, the fans and their passion gave the guys the glimmer of hope they needed. In a game that meant so much to not just a team, but an entire city, the energy was expected to be out of this world – this would be an understatement. Start to finish, despite what the scoreboard said, the fans in North Charleston Coliseum made it feel like the Cougars were leading. Even when down 36-23 at halftime, the energy in the arena made it seem as if the team were bound to win.
As the team marched to the locker room for halftime, it was understood that they’d need to come out with a different energy after the next buzzer. Down 13, it was time for champions to play like champions. It was time for whichever team that wanted it more to take control. Given the nature of the crowd and the emotion surrounding this game following last year’s CAA championship loss, elder statesman Joe Chealey took it upon himself to make sure that this story ended in a befitting manner of his Charleston squad.
As the second half progressed, the College slowly but surely chipped away at Northeastern’s momentum. After more contribution from typical Cougar spark plugs Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley, along with continued excellence from Chealey, Charleston truly played themselves back into the mix.
For most of this half, the Northeastern lead hovered around 10 points. With a little over five minutes of play to go, the College was able to crack the Huskies’ armor, making it a five-point game after a series of steals and fastbreak scores.
After a 9-0 Charleston run, the game was at last within reaching distance. Northeastern held a one-point lead with about three minutes of play to go. Around this time, Chealey took a hard fall directly onto his ankle, resulting in an obvious limp.
With 40 seconds to go, the Northeastern lead was back up to five. When all hope was lost, Chealey delivered once again in this historic comeback effort. Chealey was fouled on a three-point attempt and sunk all three of his free throws.
After a key defensive stop, Charleston found themselves with the ball yet again, down two with 33 seconds on the clock.
Who else was to be given the ball in this moment? Chealey put an exclamation mark on an already monumental performance by sinking the game-tying layup with 10 seconds to go. On the other end, defensive stalwart Cam Johnson did what his career was defined by and forced a turnover to secure an overtime period. The regulation buzzer fired and the game shifted into overtime. It was clear the Cougars were back to their usual selves.
Once the ball was in and the clock started, Charleston never looked back. 20 seconds in, Brantley muscled his way in for a basket. This was the College’s first lead of the night, one that they held onto until the very end. As the overtime period waned, it became clear – the College of Charleston was about to be crowned CAA men’s basketball champions.
The final buzzer sounded, and absolute pandemonium ensued. Students rushed the court, flooding the floor in a sea of maroon as the Cougars punched their ticket back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. The final page of this story was finally written, thanks to hometown hero Chealey.
The emotion inside the Coliseum was absolutely overwhelming. Sweat and tears showered the court as the team rallied around Coach Earl Grant and Chealey.
In this type of game, legends can be born, careers can be defined. By continuing to push through physical pain to will his squad to victory, Chealey put himself into that upper echelon of Cougar greats. 32 points, 16-16 on free throws for the night, five rebounds and clutch shot after clutch shot, Chealey’s performance in the CAA championship was one worthy of the star of a sports movie.
Despite the squad suffering a disheartening loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Charleston basketball supporters all saw the fairy tale complete the night of the CAA championship. After falling in each of their last six appearances in a conference championship game, the curse was finally broken for the Cougars.
Moving forward, there is nowhere to look but up. With a rejuvenated sense of excitement and opportunity surrounding the program, more CAA championships seem probable, not just possible. The next chapter begins next fall, when Grant Riller, Jarrell Brantley and other returners look to continue solidifying a winning culture in Charleston.