Tiny Dancers: UNC-Wilmington uses late comeback to make the tourney

Yet another No. 1 seed has gone down in a conference tournament, making it six-up, and six-down as far as automatic qualifiers go as top-seeds.

This time, it was No. 2 seed UNC Wilmington defeating No. 1 seed Hofstra in overtime 80-73 after they used a rally late to almost win the whole thing in regulation. That locks up the CAA’s automatic bid for the Seahawks, giving them the chance to go dancing for the first time in a decade.

How about the way they got here, too? Former Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts and his group defeated College of Charleston by two in its CAA opener, beat Northeastern by three in the semis, then beat Hofstra in overtime after a second-half comeback that saw them get even after a 12-point deficit with 15 minutes left. Craig Ponder led the way, scoring 11 points in eight minutes to get them into striking distance.

Overall though, this is a true team that has five players averaging at least nine points per game. They play relatively small most of the time, featuring four players on the floor who are around 6-foot-5 or shorter that are all threats to shoot from distance or attack off of the drive from the perimeter. Keatts is also a Rick Pitino disciple, meaning you can always expect his teams to be high-pressure, high-intensity teams on the defensive end. They force turnovers and really close out hard on the 3-point line.

This isn’t one of those mid-major groups that has one player that high-major teams can focus on taking away. Higher seeds are going to need to be disciplined and make sure they play smart, team-oriented defense if they want to avoid an upset. What else do you need to know about UNC Wilmington? Here’s a quick primer on the Seahawks.

Player to watch: Chris Flemmings has one of the coolest stories in college basketball. He’s a walk-on from D-II Barton College who made first-team All-CAA this season after averaging 16 points and six rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field. It’s believed he’s the first player to ever do that as a walk-on in the CAA.

The Vitals:

    • Record: 25-7 overall, 14-4 in the CAA (No. 2 seed)
    • Most recent tournament appearance: 2006 (No. 9 seed who lost to George Washington 88-85 in the Round of 64)
    • Jerry Palm predicts: 13 seed
    • RPI: 59
    • KenPom ranking: 76
    • Sagarin ranking: 94
    • Best wins: William & Mary, James Madison (twice), Hofstra (twice)
    • Worst losses: East Carolina, Radford
    • Notable stat: 760. This is a physical team. So much so, in fact, that they can get a little bit ahead of themselves sometimes. The Seahawks have committed 760 personal fouls this season, second-most in the country. That physicality could play well in a tournament game, or it could play poorly depending on the matchup, we’ll see.

Closing quip: Two years ago, this team was in the dregs of the CAA. It was coming off of six losing seasons in a row when it hired Keatts, including an ugly 9-23 season in Buzz Peterson’s last year. Two years and two coach of the year awards for Keatts later, this program is back on the map and into the NCAA Tournament. It’s one of the best turnaround jobs that we’ve seen in the country over that time frame, and Keatts deserves a lot of credit — and possibly a bump up in jobs soon — for bringing it about.

UNC Wilmington is going dancing. (USATSI)
UNC Wilmington is going dancing. (USATSI)

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