A year removed, the loss still lingers in C.J. Bryce’s mind.
Bryce, a former star at North Mecklenburg High, and his UNC Wilmington teammates appeared on the brink of upsetting Duke in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament. But after leading at halftime, they fell just short in a 93-85 defeat.
The loss hurt. Even more so, it’s motivated the Seahawks this season en route to their second straight Colonial Athletic Association tournament title and NCAA tournament berth.
Thus, when Bryce and UNC Wilmington, the No. 12 seed in the East Region, face fifth-seeded Virginia at 12:40 p.m. Thursday (truTV) in Orlando, Fla., a year’s worth of frustration could be resolved against another ACC opponent.
“I think it was something that was not only in mine but everyone in the program’s minds as we prepared in the offseason and especially during the season …” said Bryce, a sophomore guard, about the Duke loss. “We definitely have a bad taste in our mouths from last year.”
If the Seahawks (29-5) hope to rid themselves of that taste, Bryce will likely be at the forefront.
As a freshman last season, he averaged 10.1 points and started 30 of 33 games. He scored 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting and added eight rebounds in the loss to the Blue Devils.
However, that marked just the beginning. On a team that boasts four starters averaging double-digit points, Bryce leads UNC Wilmington in scoring (17.6) this season.
Bryce’s play has only improved since the Seahawks suffered a 77-76 defeat at Elon on Feb. 11, their third loss in five games. He’s averaging 21.3 points and shooting 59.1 percent on 3-pointers in seven games since then, and he claimed the CAA tournament MVP after leading his team to wins over Delaware, William & Mary and the College of Charleston.
The stretch highlights the leadership role Bryce has assumed.
“Coming in as a freshman, everyone pretty much knows who they’re following on the team,” Bryce said. “It’s not so much opening up my mouth and speaking. That’s something I did more this year, but last year it was more leading by example and going hard at all times.”
That’s the same approach North Mecklenburg coach Duane Lewis remembers Bryce taking in high school.
Bryce transferred from Hopewell High before his junior year. Once Bryce arrived at North Mecklenburg, Lewis recalls Bryce constantly pushing teammates in practice and holding them accountable, sometimes calling them if they weren’t at a workout.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve had two kids who were flat-out like that every day,” Lewis said. “C.J. Bryce came in that gym every day, he tried to win every drill, he wanted to win every shooting contest — not in a way that made others mad, but just that burning desire to be the best he could be.”
That’s the C.J. Bryce the Vikings became accustomed to in high school — the one who was voted Mecklenburg County Player of the Year his senior season after averaging 24.0 points and 7.0 rebounds.
It’s also the C.J. Bryce the Seahawks will need if they hope to upend the Cavaliers (22-10) and win their second NCAA tournament game in school history.
“It’s a bigger stage and it’s a better team than we’re used to playing against,” Bryce said. “But we’re just trying to approach it as another game, go hard in practice, go over their personnel and learn the things we need to learn.”
Each year, Sports Illustrated publishes its “March Madness” issue, which features a collage with one player from each of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament on its cover. Bryce represents UNCW this year.
“It’s good to see a a good person get rewarded …” Lewis said. “He’s made the NCAA tournament both years, and he’s gotten better each year. He’s deserving of everything he gets, and I know that when they get beat, if they get beat, he’ll be right back in there (working).”