In dramatic fashion, the College of Charleston is heading back to the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years.

With a stifling defense and an attacking offense, the Cougars beat Northeastern University in overtime by a score of 83-76 to win the Colonial Athletic Association’s championship game Tuesday night, clinching an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament next week.

Chealey in a play.

The win marks the first time the College has captured both the CAA regular-season title and the CAA tournament. The victory also ends the College’s 19-year drought of NCAA Tournament appearances. The College’s last trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 1999 when Charleston lost to Tulsa 62-53 in the first round.

“We had amazing grit by our players,” said Coach Earl Grant. “We knew we were going to win it, but we did not realize that we would see that much adversity through the game. But we believed we would win it.”

The Cougars struggled in the first half of play, trailing Northeastern by 13 points at halftime. Northeastern extended the lead to 17 points in the second half, before the Cougars made a determined comeback.

With 10 seconds on the clock, senior Joe Chealey drove the lane and tied the score at 65. The Cougars forced a turnover with 3 seconds left in the game and ended the regulation period tied with Northeastern at 65-65.

The crowd goes wild.

The Cougars then took the lead in the first 30 seconds of overtime. It was the first time the team held the lead the entire game. They extended the lead to six points with two minutes left in overtime. But, Northeastern roared back and cut that lead to three points with 40 seconds left.

Clutch free throw shooting by Chealey in the final seconds gave the Cougars the victory and the CAA championship.

“We faced adversity at every level,” said guard Grant Riller. “But we keep fighting and that is what makes this team so great.”

The CAA Championship game is the third time that College of Charleston has played Northeastern this year. The College has won all three match-ups.

The Cougars (26-7) will have to wait a few days to see who their opponent will be in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA Basketball Committee will reveal the 68 teams in the field during the 2018 NCAA March Madness Selection Show televised on TBS on March 11, 2018, at 6 p.m.

Senior and team co-captain Joe Chealy hoists the CAA trophy as Head Coach Earl Grant looks on.

All photos: Mike Ledford