Joe Chealey just shook his head.
Nope. No way.
This wasn’t going to make up for what happened in last year’s Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game against UNC Wilmington.
A year ago, Chealey walked off the floor at the North Charleston Coliseum, taking a look over his shoulder to watch as the Seahawks celebrated their 78-69 win over College of Charleston in the CAA Tournament’s title game and head to the NCAA Tournament.
The painful memory still lingers with the Orlando, Fla., native. It’s one that he uses as motivation for this season.
And while Thursday night’s 80-76 victory over the Seahawks was certainly a satisfying moment for Chealey it wasn’t about to make up for last year’s defeat.
“That game still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I think everyone feels that way,” said Chealey, who led the Cougars with 18 points and four assists. “I think that’s what kind of drives us this year. We want to get back to the championship game and this time win it. UNCW has always been one of our main rivals, every since I’ve been here, so that feels good, but this was about protecting our home court more than what happened last year. Last year’s done.”
Chealey was one of five Charleston (13-6, 4-3 in CAA) players in double-figures and the Cougars would end up needed every point to hold off a furious Wilmington (5-4, 2-5) rally over the final 15 minutes of the game.
The Cougars looked like the preseason favorites they were picked to be, scoring almost at will against a Seahawks defense that looked a step slow. Charleston shot 54.8 percent from the floor during the opening 20 minutes, making six 3-pointers and jumping out to a 20-point lead.
“I think we were locked in and focused from the start of the game,” said Jarrell Brantley, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. “We moved the ball well and played good defense. We hit some shots and got into a good rhythm. I think that shows the kind of team we can be when we’re playing well at both ends of the floor.”
Charleston used a 14-0 run to open up a double-digit lead midway through the opening half. The Cougars took control of the game going on a 17-3 run highlighted by four 3-pointers, including two from senior guard Cameron Johnson. Brantley’s layup with 4:28 to play gave the Cougars a 39-22 advantage.
Chealey’s 3-pointer two minutes gave the Cougars their biggest, 48-28 at halftime.
“Charleston is a very good team and when they are shooting like that, it’s going to be tough to beat them,” said UNC Wilmington coach C.B. McGrath. “We just were not taking a lot of pride in our defense. We were behind on every play.”
The second half started out much like the opening 20 minutes. The Cougars, who led 47-31 at halftime, grabbed a 53-33 lead on two Brantley free throws.
The rout was on.
But then the Seahawks came to life. Devontae Cacok, who leads the nation in rebounding, sat out most of the first half in foul trouble. Wilmington began to rally behind Cacok, who finished with 20 and a game-high 13 rebounds, and the shooting of Ty Taylor, who finished with a game-high 23 points.
The Seahawks slowly cut into the lead as the Cougars began to miss shots.
“We played really well for about 30 minutes and in this league you have to play well for 40 minutes,” said College of Charleston coach Earl Grant. “They hit some shots and we had some good possessions, but missed some shots we normally make.”
The Seahawks cut it to nine points, then eight and pulled to within a basket, 73-71, on Jaylen Fornes’ 3-pointer with 1:26 to play.
But Chealey drove the lane on the Cougars next possession and left the ball off to Nick Harris who slammed it home to give Charleston a 75-71 lead with 57 seconds to play.
After two free throws from Brantley, Wilmington’s Jordon Talley connected on a 3-pointer to cut the gap to 77-74 with 25 seconds to play, but that would be as close as the Seahawks would get.
“We made some shots, some free throws down the stretch, so really proud of the way we finished the game,” Grant said.
Johnson finished with 11 points and Harris had 10 points and eight rebounds in the victory.
Reach Andrew Miller at 843-937-5599. Follow him on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC