Cheers, hugs and high-fives were ubiquitous as the buzzer sounded and fans stormed the basketball court on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at the North Charleston Coliseum. Joe Chealy, the Men’s Basketball senior co-captain who scored a game high 32 points despite turning his ankle in the final minutes, leapt onto the scorers’ table and thumbed his CofC jersey for the rabid Cougar fans cheering.
It was a magical evening capped by the Cougars claiming the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball championship title and the culmination of a phenomenal season for the College.
With a tough-fought, overtime victory over the Northeastern University Huskies, the team ended a 19-year drought of NCAA Tournament appearances, during which the Cougars had failed to win their own conference tournament and thus advance to the “Big Dance.” Now, CougarNation is partying like it’s 1999 (the last time the College earned an NCAA berth) and the players are getting ready to step onto the national stage.
Senior center Nick Harris couldn’t stop smiling. “Coach has been telling us for three years, just keep climbing that mountain,” said Harris moments after the big win. “He told us it would be hard and he told us there will be ups and downs, but you’ve got to keep trying, you’ve got to be consistent. It’s just like the game tonight, it was definitely up and down, but we had faith in each other and we pulled it out. Now, we’re going dancing. It’s what you dream about as a kid, and now we’re going to the NCCA!”
The players were deservedly jubilant, as family, friends and fans swarmed onto the court. But the merriment they shared with everyone belied the fact that for the seniors on this team, this scenario was validation of a brotherly bond that had seen them through the worst and the best that a young student-athlete can experience.
For the team’s seniors, the consistency that Harris mentions has been hard to come by. Chealy, Harris and co-captain Cameron Johnson, along with Evan Bailey and John Eck, have each played under three different head coaches during their time at the College. They lived through the experience of the tragic Mother Emanuel shooting in the summer of 2015, just a block away from the arena they call home. And, except for Johnson and Bailey, they each sat out a year due to injury or redshirting.
But, over the past several months, life for these players and their Cougar teammates has morphed, and they’ve managed to achieve a singular brand of consistency. They succeeded in not losing a game at home all season and built a 26 and 7 record overall.
Chealy, the floor leader, credits the team’s collective grit, strong work ethic and an abiding trust in each other and their coach – Earl Grant. Exhausted and limping, he was pensive after the win.
“Credit all the hard work we’ve put in,” said Chealey. Though he’s far too humble to say so, the Orlando, Fla. native was referencing the many hours he’s spent working on his shots and perfecting his moves alone in the gym. And he was referencing the many grueling team practices, and the lessons he and his teammates have had to absorb again and again. And the adversity they’ve had to overcome so many times.
“I’ll be honest,” he said at the post-game press conference. “That summer back in 2014, when we didn’t have a coach, it was hard. I didn’t know what would happen. But, there were five of us – Cam, Evan, Nick, John Eck and myself – and we were brothers, and I told them we were going to ride it out together no matter what. Those were humble beginnings and we went through a lot, but then Coach Grant arrived and he won our trust. He told us to put in the work and things would be OK. Well, all the hard work has paid off, and here I am with the best coach and the best teammates ever.”
Chealy called the feeling of winning the CAA tournament and the prospect of playing in the NCAA Tournament “indescribable.”
Some 8,000 raucous fans attended the game in North Charleston, which was a frenzied, scrappy affair right up until the final minute of play in overtime. In a dramatic, improbable fashion, the Cougars managed to claw their way back from a 17-point deficit in the second half to force the game into overtime. And then, they applied their grit and their faith and their determination in earnest, foiling the Huskies to win by a seven-point margin.
When the final buzzer sounded, amid the chaos, Chealy somehow found his roommate of four years, Cam Johnson – the guy he calls the best defensive player he’s ever seen – and the two hugged.
“I can’t put into words what the moment felt like for us,” he said. “And I can’t tell you what I said. I was crying my eyes out.”
It was a moment of jubilation and vindication – a rare vignette that few aside from brothers and champions can know. It was magical.