UNC-Wilmington Continues To Win Despite Lack of Respect

March 6, 2006

By Phil Kasiecki
Special to CSTV.com


Phil is the Sr. Editor of Hoopville.com, and contributes regular content to CSTV.com. E-mail here!


RICHMOND, Va. - Perhaps UNC-Wilmington will now get the respect it deserves.


There have been doubters about this team all season long.  They were picked fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association's preseason coaches poll, yet finished the regular season in a tie for first place and got the top seed by way of a tie-breaker.  They have been talked about much less than the other four schools in the conference that had won at least 20 games - the first time that has happened in the regular season in the conference's history - yet here they stand as champions for the fourth time in seven years and with a school-record 25 wins after Monday nights 78-67 win over Hofstra in the CAA championship game.


"We had a little chip on our shoulder all weekend," said head coach Brad Brownell, who won his second championship in four years at the helm and was an assistant on the other two championship teams.  "Every time we turn on the TV, everybody's talking about all the other schools getting an at-large.  I think we're deserving of other schools getting at-larges, I think we deserve a lot of people getting in the tournament, but very few people were talking about us."


People need to start talking about the Seahawks, and not just because Brownell would want it that way or because they won on Monday night.  This is a team that hasn't just scraped by with a few close wins; in fact, they are 2-4 in games decided by five points or less.  They have won in impressive fashion and not just in the last month, where they have put together a ten-game winning streak that they will ride into the NCAA Tournament.


The way they won the championship was every bit as impressive as the fact that they did it at all.  They won all three games this weekend by double-digit margins, never trailing once.  In fact, they led wire to wire in their last two games, wins over Northeastern and Hofstra.  Monday night, they tied the record for fewest turnovers in a Colonial Tournament game with just five.  In each game this weekend, four players scored in double figures for the Seahawks, and it wasn't the same four every game - in fact, only Todd Hendley and tournament MVP T.J. Carter did so in all three.


"We kept winning big, and we've been winning by double digits for a while now," said Brownell.  "I think we've played at a high level all year long."


With 83 wins now, the senior class of two-time All-CAA selection John Goldsberry, Mitch Laue, Taylor Lay and Beckham Wyrick is the winningest class since the program moved to Division I in 1976.  (The winningest four-year period in the program's overall history came while it was a junior college, when they won 89 games between 1958 and 1962.)  Like the entire team, they're not a flashy group, they aren't exceptional athletes, but they know how to win.  They play smart basketball, their big men know how to tip rebounds that they can't easily grab out to the perimeter where someone else might get it, and they defend at both ends of the floor.


All of this by a team located a little away from everything in a basketball-rich state, which is a blessing and a curse at the same time.  It's a blessing because basketball is very big in the Tar Heel State, and Trask Coliseum, their home arena, is often a packed house, but it's also a curse because they're easily overshadowed by ACC schools.  They get good attention from local media, as there are no pro teams and the school does not have a football team, but state-wide they are certainly not the first option when it comes to college basketball.  That happens not only with fan and media interest, but also with recruiting.


There is plenty of talent in North Carolina, but the Seahawks have just one player from that state, which Brownell hopes the winning ways will change.  Fittingly enough, that one player is Hendley, who they recruited out of high school but decided to go to Wake Forest for a season before transferring east to UNC-Wilmington and being a key player on this team.  Hendley also fits another connection for the team, as he was born in Wheaton, Ill. - he's a Midwesterner just like Brownell and several other Seahawks, with three hailing from Ohio.


Brownell said that many players on the team have had to deal with family being far away from the school and not always being able to see them play.  It's also part of why this championship feels so good for him and the team, in addition to the feeling that he has won with his players and not an inherited team.


"We kind of came in as freshman, with me being a freshman head coach," he reflected.  "To win it that year with that group, and grow with these guys to build another championship program is really special."


Monday night, Carter took over in the final minutes to finish off the win, scoring 12 of his 23 points in the final three minutes, with two jumpers, a three-pointer and free throws.  Carter is symbolic of this team, a player who wasn't highly recruited out of high school and has also had to deal with some adversity along the way.  After making strides last year, the Maryland native had hernia surgery and could not do individual workouts last spring because he needed to rest.  All he did this season was lead the team in scoring this year and become a third-team All-CAA selection, then take over the conference championship game.


"One of the reasons I came to this school is that actually is a program and guys really care about each other," said the junior guard.  "It's been a tradition, these guys have been making the tournament consistently.  I wanted to be part of something special."


The Seahawks certainly have the feeling that something special is happening right now, as they cut down the nets again in Richmond on Monday night.


Will Hofstra Dance?


A recurring theme all weekend revolved around how many teams from the CAA will make the NCAA Tournament.  UNC-Wilmington had the lowest RPI of the three teams being discussed as possible at-large candidates, so their victory could help or hurt the conference.


Hofstra went 5-2 against the other three CAA schools that finished in the top four, and also won at St. John's during the season - the third year in a row they have done that.  The Pride have certainly put their best foot forward in winning 24 games in probably the best year of the CAA's history, and all signs point to them being a team that goes dancing when it's all said and done.  They should be the first at-large choice, as they knocked off George Mason twice.


Pecora's opposite number on Monday night did some campaigning for them and George Mason, the other bubble team in the conference.


"I feel like this is a league that can easily get three bids," said Brownell.  "I've been in the league 12 years, it's never been this good.


"My biggest fear - and this was really my biggest fear all weekend - is that they're going to feel like they pacify our league by giving us two bids, even though we may deserve three.  It's like, okay, the CAA hasn't had two bids in (20 years), let's give them two.  But we really should get three."



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