College Sports

Campbell’s tournament run, ‘just short of magical,’ coach says

When Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan addressed his players in the locker room after their 76-59 loss in the Big South Championship game Sunday, he told them he was proud of them and asked them a question no one knew.

“Who was in the Big South championship game and lost last year?” McGeehan asked his players.

They all stared at him.

“I said ‘Winthrop,’ ” McGeehan recalled.

It was an interesting question to ask following a loss to Winthrop, but what followed Winthrop losing last year’s Big South championship game, is indicative of what McGeehan believes will happen to his team.

That the Fighting Camels will use their run and loss as momentum heading into next year’s regular season. And as a result, he hopes the Camels will be the ones cutting down the nets with a trip to the NCAA tournament.

“I think that this kind of a run is a program-changing type thing,” McGeehan said. “I think we all sensed it and felt it.”

It started with an 81-79 upset win over the No. 2 seed UNC-Asheville on March 2.

Campbell’s Chris Clemons , a 5-9, 185-pound sophomore guard, from Raleigh’s Millbrook High, scored 51 points to help lead the Camels to victory over UNCA. Clemons’ stat line went viral on social media. He was 18-for-32 from the floor and 8-for-14 from beyond the 3-point line. Clemons said he received hundreds of texts and Twitter messages from people congratulating him. It was one of the top highlight’s on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Then a day later, the Camels upset the No. 3 seed Radford, 66-50, to get to the Big South title game. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

Campbell (17-17) came into the tournament the No. 7 seed and with a losing record. But the Camels seemed to be one of those March Madness teams catching fire just at the right time, while riding a four-game winning streak.

Sunday’s game was the most important, though. A win would have earned Campbell its second-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, and first since 1992 when it played Duke in Greensboro.

But it came to a screeching halt Sunday when it met the No. 1 seed Winthrop (26-6).

“They sort of took the basketball world by storm for a couple of days when Chris Clemons was like a video game scoring all those points,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said. “We were really worried about this one. Knew we had to guard at a high level to win it.”

And they did.

Clemons, who had averaged 37.6 points per game in the three tournament games, started cold. He missed 11 of his first 13 shots, before he made 7 of his next 15. He wound up with 29 points, but was 9-for-27 from the floor. He was 6-for-18 from the 3-point line.

Winthrop’s 5-7, 160-pound senior guard Keon Johnson put on a show early in the second half that helped crack open the game. Johnson scored 12 points in the first four minutes of the second half. He finished with 26 points.

Clemons appeared distraught after the game. At the postgame news conference, he covered his mouth with his hand, and he stared down at the stat sheet on the table in front of him.

“I’m a little disappointed,” Clemons said with tears in his eyes. “I don’t think I played as good as I hoped to play. Didn’t shoot very well, personally. We struggled from the field, pretty much everybody did, but I think we fought very hard. And we’re just going to have to keep moving forward.”

Moving forward is what the Camels will have to do. Normally in the Big South, only one team will make it to the NCAA tournament, and that’s the team that wins the conference tournament.

The Camels could return all of its tournament starters next season. Its eldest starter is Shane Whitfield, a 6-7, 210-pound redshirt junior forward, who averages 11.8 points per game. And of course there is Clemons. If he stays, he will be a junior next season.

Clemons averaged 24.4 points per game this season, which is fourth-best in the nation. But Sunday, he didn’t have it going.

“It would have been a complete zoo if we won this one, I’ll tell you that,” McGeehan said. “I’m honored to be the coach of this team. And this week has been, just short of magical.”

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @jonmalexander