CONWAY – Coastal Carolina knows history won't be on its side when the Chanticleers take on Virginia to open the NCAA tournament this week, but that won't affect their confidence as they make their first appearance in the tournament since 1993.
They've already defied plenty of odds just to make it this far. Coastal Carolina (21-12) was the surprise team in the Big South this year, winning the South division and tournament title despite losing a pair of legendary guards. Now they hope to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed when they face the Cavaliers Friday in Raleigh.
"It's definitely exciting just to know who you're going to play, when you're going to play and to be able to be the first 16-seed to knock off a No. 1-seed," guard Josh Cameron said. "It's definitely exciting, and we feel like we can do it."
Coastal Carolina learned its tournament fate Sunday while surrounded by dozens of Chanticleer fans at the HTC Center. CBS took a live shot of the team during its announcement of the matchup. Even before the announcement, a celebratory atmosphere filled the arena, and head coach Cliff Ellis sang and danced for the crowd prior to the show.
"This is that shining moment, because it is the NCAA tournament, so it's a great feeling – one that we want to enjoy," Ellis said. "But also understand that, ok, we've had a fun week - now we've got to really get serious and focus, because we've got to really come out and compete, because it's going to be a task."
Virginia (28-6) earned one of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds after winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles. The Cavaliers, led by coach Tony Bennett, lead the nation in scoring defense and have won 16 of their last 17 games.
"We're excited about the opportunity to come out and play," junior guard Warren Gillis said. "And we know it's a very tough team we're going to face, and we're a tough team, as well. And we're looking forward to the game."
It's certainly not easy to face off with one of the nation's top teams, but from a geographical perspective, the Chanticleers couldn't have fared better. They'll play in Raleigh, which is the closest destination to Conway of any of the regional sites.
"Hopefully, we can get some Coastal fans out there since it's a little bit closer," guard Josh Cameron said. "So get a little bit more home feel."
They also avoid playing in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio – where many analysts had projected them to go. Had that happened, they would have been forced to play as early as Tuesday before heading to different location for another game just a couple days later.
"If we could have played in the play-in game, that would have been a great chance to play in front of everybody. That would have been the only game on during that time," Gillis said. "Now that we're not, we have a different opportunity ahead of us against a tough team."
Ellis is making his first trip to the NCAA tournament in 11 years, but he has no shortage of experience there. He made three trips each with Clemson and Auburn, helping both reach the Sweet 16. He also twice took South Alabama to the dance, nearly upsetting No. 3 seed Louisville in 1979. He believes the Chanticleers can give themselves a chance Friday if they can keep it close throughout.
"The more you can stay in the game, I think the more pressure is put on the No. 1 seed – whoever the 16-seed team plays," he said. "The longer the game goes, the closer it stays, the more pressure is put on the other team. So I do want our team to be very loose."
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