CAA Championship: Charleston Fights Its Way To The Big Dance

CAA Championship: Charleston Fights Its Way To The Big Dance

College of Charleston and UNC Wilmington delivered on a hard-fought CAA Championship for the ages.

Mar 8, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
CAA Championship: Charleston Fights Its Way To The Big Dance

Blood was shed, bodies collided and competitors hungry for a championship exchanged haymakers from bell-to-bell. 

No, it wasn't any kind of prize fight — though College of Charleston players did celebrate at the end with wrestler Bryan Danielson's signature chant of, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" pumping their hands in the air in unison. 

Rather, this was the culmination of the 2023 Colonial Athletic Association Championship, and a 40-minute slugfest to send a winner to the NCAA Tournament. 

Charleston survived a wild affair against UNC Wilmington, 63-58, rallying from down eight points with 6:13 remaining. It was everything that an outside observer could want from March basketball: competitive, dramatic, intense — but certainly not for the faint of heart. 

In the postgame celebratory net-cutting celebration, Ante Brzovic — an All-Tournament honoree after his 16-point, eight-rebound, two-block performance — bled slightly from a gash on his arm. 

Dalton Bolon, he of the nickname fit for a boxer or wrestler, "Pyscho D," came out of the game momentarily just minutes in needing attention to a bleeding cut near his eye. 

And just moments into the contest, an appropriate tone was set when Charleston's Ryan Larson and UNCW's junkyard-dog defensive scrapper Shykeim Phillips collided while chasing down a loose ball. 

For a team that came into the CAA Championship among the nation's highest-scoring and one of the leaders in 3-point shooting, advancing to March Madness in a physical fight would seemingly belie their identity. 

Not so, explained Cougars coach Pat Kelsey. 

"That's something that we pride [ourselves] on. There might be another team as tough as us, but there's not a tougher team in the country," he said. 

For most of the CAA Championship, Charleston was stinging like a bee more often than it was floating like a butterfly. Kelsey referred to the previous night's semifinal vs. Towson as another "knock-down, drag-out ... rock fight."

So while Larson's early-game collision prompted Kelsey to say, "Uh oh," it was more in response to Larson dealing with some lingering elbow issues than any concern about Charleston's ability to bang with the Seahawks. 

And, to be sure, the Seahawks took the fight directly to the Cougars. 

"We came up short at the end," UNCW coach Takayo Siddle said. "But the fight, and the toughness, can't be questioned."

Any toll the championship loss took on the Seahawks wasn't from the game's physicality. Rather, Siddle said, it's the emotions of coming oh-so-close to defying expectations. 

UNCW lost its two leaders from last year's breakout squad under Siddle, Jaylen Sims and Mike Okauru. Yet, with a new-look lineup, the Seahawks meshed to become a leading defensive team in the Colonial and a team capable of dictating the style of a conference-championship matchup. 

"I’m more hurt for [the players]," Siddle said. "You guys have no idea what we’ve been through.”

So much of the pain in March comes from the harsh finality guaranteed to at least one side in every contest — and to all but one team at the end of the road. 

Of course, the physicality can take a toll, too. Reaching the end-goal for every team come March comes down to enduring a month-long sprint with little time for recovery. 

As for Larson, he didn't just get up off the hardwood after the early crash. He proved key to CofC's comeback, knocking down four 3-pointers on a night the Cougars otherwise struggled to connect from beyond the arc; scoring a game-high 23 points; and routinely mixing it up on defense to the tune of four steals. 

Larson won the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. 

"The last eight minutes we call 'Winning Time,'" Larson said. "And that's when we become the best team that we can [be]. We've done it all season long. Just today, the resilience this group showed is why it's so special." 

And, no matter how the NCAA Tournament shakes out for the Cougars, the 2022-23 team will be remembered as one of the most special in program history. The title-game win marked No. 31 on the campaign, setting a CAA single-season record. 

"Dang," Kelsey said reflecting momentarily on 31 wins. "That's hard to do."

There's a kind of surreality when trying to appreciate achieving the unprecedented when in the moment. The gravity of setting a conference record will set in at some point after the Cougars' run concludes, but that point isn't now. 

Not with the chance to make more history in March Madness. 

Likewise, the individual journeys that led Charleston players to this point have had their own surreal twists. Pat Robinson III watched the NCAA Tournament at home a year ago, cheering on the North Carolina Tar Heels in their run to the National Championship Game, with no expectations he'd have a similar opportunity come 2023. 

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"I thought the climax of my year was playing UNC at UNC," he said, referring to Charleston's early-season matchup with the preseason No. 1 Heels. "Now I'm in the [NCAA] Tournament...Being part of it is amazing." 

College of Charleston is indeed on a dream run with the CAA title now en tow. Just don't pinch the Cougars — in preparation for the Big Dance, they'll need a few days of ice after the battles of the CAA Championship.