CONWAY, S.C. -- Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis stood atop the ladder after slipping the Big South Conference championship net around his neck. The fit was just as sweet as ever.
"This is a euphoric moment," Ellis said Sunday, celebrating his team's second consecutive conference title, an 81-70 victory over Winthrop.
Now, Ellis is on another mission -- gaining a higher seed in the NCAA tournament than the No. 16 the Chanticleers had last year. Ellis said his team has proven its mettle the past two seasons, including going toe-to-toe with No. 1 seed Virginia in last season's 70-59 NCAA defeat.
"Yeah, I'm out beating on a drum," the 69-year-old Ellis said. "But I've earned the right to do it."
Coastal Carolina (24-9) displayed that grit to pull away from a game tied 38-all at halftime with a 15-4 run to start the second half and wrest control from the Eagles (19-13).
Warren Gillis scored 22 points and Elijah Wilson had 14 of his 19 in the second half for the Chanticleers. Wilson was named tournament MVP. Both were part of last year's NCAA run and are eager to take things further this season.
"We can matchup with anybody," Coastal forward Badou Diagne said.
Coastal Carolina's victory brings the 10th NCAA Tournament appearance for Ellis, the only Division I coach with 150 or more victories at four separate schools. Ellis last year joined the club of 11 coaches who have taken four teams to the NCAAs. Now, he's done it multiple times at each of his four stops: South Alabama, Clemson, Auburn and Coastal Carolina.
Keon Johnson led Winthrop with 18 points.
Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey thought his team had momentum at halftime after erasing Coastal's nine-point lead to tie the game. But breakdowns on defense and missed open shots swung the game, he said.
"When a veteran team has a lead like that, it's tough to claw back," Kelsey said.
Josh Cameron dribbled out the clock, then threw the ball into the air when the horn sounded as he and the team were quickly swarmed by Coastal Carolina students and fans celebrating the team's fourth NCAA Tournament appearance (1991, 1993 and 2014).
The Eagles came up short in the Big South finals for the second straight season in Kelsey's three years.
Coastal Carolina finished with four players in double figures as Cameron had 13 points and Diagne 11.
The Chants earned their first NCAA Tournament trip in 21 years with a 76-61 victory last year. These teams came from back in the field -- and got plenty of help along the way -to set up the conference tournament's first ever rematch.
Coastal Carolina, the third seed, topped UNC Asheville and Gardner-Webb (a seventh seed that upset No. 2 High Point on Friday) to advance. Winthrop was seeded fifth and moved on with wins over No. 4 seed Radford and ninth-seeded Longwood, a quarterfinal winner over regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Charleston Southern.
Wilson scored 61 points in three games to earn tournament MVP honors. He had a career-high 29 points off seven 3-pointers in the Chants quarterfinal win over UNC Asheville, then 13 points against Gardner-Webb.
Ellis acknowledged the excitement of returning the NCAA Tournament, yet said he's learned to temper things because of the low points that inevitably follow such highs. He brought up the 1990 NCAA Sweet 16 game with Connecticut as Clemson's coach when Huskies guard Tate George hit a last-second shot to end the Tigers' run. "I've been on the other side of this, too," Ellis said.
WINTHROP: Eagles were a mid-major power from 1999-2010 with nine Big South Conference tournaments and NCAA appearances under Gregg Marshall and Randy Peele. ... Winthrop missed out on consecutive 20-win seasons for first time since posting four straight from 2004-08. ... Winthrop is just the second No. 5 seed to reach the Big South title game, joining 2003 UNC Asheville, which won the league tournament championship.
COASTAL CAROLINA: Coastal Carolina and Winthrop have played 80 times, the Chants holding a 41-39 edge.