On-site coverage: UNCW vs. Duke

(Photo by the News&Observer)

By: Noah Thomas

This past Tuesday, I was notified that I would be flown out to Providence, Rhode Island to cover UNC Wilmington’s game against Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As the assistant sports editor at UNCW’s newspaper, “The Seahawk,” I was thrilled at the opportunity. The true scope of what I was doing would not hit me until later.

I left Wednesday night and arrived in Providence just after 10 p.m. I went straight to my hotel, settled in, and went to sleep in anticipation of the next morning. I was stoked.

When I woke up the next morning—more than five hours before tip-off—I didn’t quite know what to expect for the day ahead. I was five miles from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and I knew that by the time I arrived there at 10:30 that the rest of the morning would zoom by.

I took an Uber. I saw much of downtown Providence. Providence, one of the oldest cities in the United States, is obscenely beautiful. If you know me personally, go take a look at my Facebook page and take a look at some of the pictures I snapped while there.

When I arrived at the Dunk—what the people of Providence so affectionately call the home arena of their beloved Friars—I immediately knew I was doing something special. The atmosphere outside the arena was electric.

As I made my way to the media entrance to obtain my NCAA credentials, I walked past ESPN’s Andy Katz on the sidewalk. I had to do a double-take…was that really Andy Katz? It was, but I had a job to do, so I kept walking.

I made it inside. Media credentials handy, I found my way into the back area of the arena. After noting where I would be sitting during the game, I sat down in the media workroom and began the preliminary writing for my game article. (If you’d like to read it, go to TheSeahawk.org as soon as Thursday, March 24 at approximately 5 p.m. EST.)

When it was nearly game time, I made my way to press row and took my seat. I was on the right end of the second row, just to the right of half-court. I took a lot of pictures. Seeing UNCW play the defending national champions was a treat, but being there in a professional setting enhanced my experience so much more.

I was sitting amongst journalists from all across the country. Directly to my left was a young man working for a TV station in Waco, Texas, the home of the Baylor Bears, who were playing in Providence before being upset by Yale that night.

As the game tipped off, I tried my best to hold back any physical signs of bias in my connection to UNCW. And I did (for the most part), for I only allowed myself to express the occasional “What was that?” combination of facial expression and hand gesture.

The Seahawks took a 43-40 halftime lead over Duke. They should have led by at least six, but the freakishly athletic Brandon Ingram launched a three-pointer just before time expired. He did this on a fast break and Denzel Ingram’s hand in his face. He made it, though. He’s freaky good.

I knew UNCW had a chance all along. As one of the best mid-major teams in the country (I stand by that), the Seahawks play a brand of small-ball that works for them. With no significant presence in the low post, they rely mostly on their guards for points off of penetration and three-point shooting.

Their weaknesses, lack of size and not being able to keep themselves out of foul trouble, were too much for them to overcome in the end, however.

These weaknesses played into each other as the game went on—the size UNCW does have disappeared due to foul accumulation. Ranking 350 of 351 NCAA teams in defensive foul efficiency in the regular season, the Seahawks averaged 26 team fouls per game. They finished with 33 on Thursday.

They were forced to play much of the second half without their two big men: C.J. Gettys a 7’0” junior, and Devontae Cacok, a 6’7” true freshman. Both fouled out in the second half and this forced head coach Kevin Keatts to rotate stretch forward Dylan Sherwood to the center position.

This didn’t go over very well for them on defense. Marshall Plumlee, a 7’1” big man for the Blue Devils, dominated on the inside and scored 19 points in the second half off of more than half a dozen thunderous dunks. He finished with 23 points.

UNCW’s Chris Flemmings and Craig Ponder led the way. They scored 18 and 22 points, respectively, and kept the Seahawks in the game throughout. There were multiple factors that contributed to the 93-85 loss, but lack of production from Jordan Talley may have been an underrated part of it all.

The sophomore guard, a sixth man who has developed into Wilmington’s sole true point guard, tallied only six points in the loss in 17 minutes of action. He was limited because of foul trouble, collecting four. He was a difference maker in many ways throughout the season, and his lack of production hurt the Seahawks against Duke.

Grayson Allen, Duke’s Ted Cruz look-alike, attempted nearly as many free throws by himself (17) as UNCW did as a team (19). The Blue Devils attempted 43 in all, making 31 of them. Getting to the line will be a point UNCW will have to improve on for 2017.

Duke never lead by more than 10 in the game. Wilmington cut the deficit down to five in the final minute when Denzel Ingram buried a 28-foot shot and made Duke sweat even more, but the Seahawks wouldn’t be able to capitalize on that momentum.

The clock finally hit zero. UNCW was going home after a stellar season that included its first CAA Tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance in ten years. There was no shame, though.

As I got up from my seat to make my way back to the conference room, I saw Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski standing at press row, speaking to various media outlets about what had just occurred. I was a few feet away from a living legend—the greatest college basketball coach of all time, possibly the greatest coach in any sport, ever.

In the post-game press conference, Keatts mentioned how they expected to win the game before it started. After going into the locker room with the lead at halftime, he told his players to simply stay the course and keep doing what had gotten them there.

“We walked into the locker room at the end of the game and I knew that the program was headed in the right direction because no one wanted a moral victory, those guys were upset because we lost the game,” Keatts said.

Keatts, joined by Flemmings and Ponder at the table, spoke like a man whose children had just accomplished something extraordinary. In a way, they had. The nation had been reminded of the rich tradition of UNCW basketball.

I left for my hotel soon afterwards. I had work to do and basketball to watch. Making it back to Wilmington yesterday afternoon, I keep wondering if I’ll be able to experience something like that again. One can only hope.

I’d like to thank the University of North Carolina Wilmington, UNCW Student Media, and, most importantly, The Seahawk newspaper for allowing me to represent such an amazing university at one of our nation’s most high-profile sporting events.

What I saw and who I met today created one the coolest moments of my life, and the career experience I gained through this three-day adventure will undoubtedly lift me to greater things in the future.

Most importantly, I was able to watch my fellow students take on Duke University in a tightly contested game that nearly shocked a nation. I’ll never forget it.

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