CONWAY - Cliff Ellis proved he still has a little dancing left in him.
The Coastal Carolina coach was in the thick of a mid-court dance party Sunday as his Chanticleers earned their first NCAA trip in 21 years with a 76-61 victory over Winthrop to win the Big South Conference tournament.
Ellis, who had previously led South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn into the NCAAs, hugged his wife near the end of the game, then joined his players for some celebrating.
"I can still dance a little bit," Ellis said with a grin.
Coastal Carolina got 22 points from Warren Gillis and 19 from Josh Cameron to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time overall and first since 1993. Ellis has reached the tournament finals on campus twice before as top seeds in 2010 and 2011, coming up short both times.
This time, the Chanticleers (21-12) used a 12-0 run in the first-half to build a double-digit lead and held on to beat the Eagles (20-13).
Winthrop cut the lead to 61-52 on Keon Johnson's free throw with 4:36 left, but got no closer. Keon Moore led Winthrop with 19 points before fouling out.
It was the first conference tournament title for Ellis in 39 years of coaching at four schools. He joins nine others who have led four schools to the NCAA tournament, trailing the mark of five set last season by Oklahoma's Lon Kruger.
About an hour after cutting down the nets,, Ellis and the Chants returned to the court for another impromptu dance-off. After a team sing-a-long of "Amazing Grace," Ellis followed freshman guard Colton Ray-St Cyr with some dance moves to the delight of his players.
"It's all elation," Ellis said. "Every time it happens, I think of every other player who's ever played for me."
The loss ended an underdog run for the Eagles, who eliminated defend champion Liberty, regular season champion High Point and second-seeded UNC Asheville. They met their match in Coastal, which pushed the pace against the tired Eagles.
"There were times I'm thinking, 'Here we go,' " Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said. "And they came and answered with something." Fans rushed the court at the HTC Center on Coastal's campus when it was over, cheering their team's first league title since 1993.
"It was just a surreal moment," Cameron said.
When Gillis, named tournament MVP, went high for an uncontested dunk with 2:41 left, the party kicked up another notch with fans waving teal pompons and chanting "C-C-U."
Ellis has made eight previous NCAA appearances, the last in 2003 when Auburn reached the round of 16.
Ellis has challenged his players all season long not to feel satisfied with accomplishments. He will take the same approach - after a few days off - this week in prepping the Chants for a likely first-round matchup against one of college basketball's best.
"We're not worried about that yet," Gillis said. "We're going to enjoy this for a while."
Coastal's last Big South tournament crown in 1993 was vacated because of NCAA violations. The Chants lost a first-round game to Michigan that year. The Wolverines, national runners-up that year, also had their entire season vacated for rules violations.
Coastal fought its way to the finals with a double-overtime win against Charleston Southern on Friday and a 66-62 victory over high-scoring VMI in the semifinals.
Winthrop looked ready to continue its giant-killing run as Smith's 3-pointer and Joab Jerome's free throws gave the Eagles an 18-16 lead with 10:18 left. That's when Coastal Carolina started a 12-0 run, led by Cameron. The junior broke an 18-all tie with a 3-pointer and made a driving layup to increase the lead to 25-18. He closed the run with another basket that put Coastal ahead 28-18.
Gillis scored the Chants' final four points of the half to give them a 34-24 lead.
Coastal Carolina built its lead without top scorer Elijah Wilson, limited to 7 minutes and one missed shot because of two early fouls. He finished with 12 points, all in the second half.
Badou Diagne had 17 points for the Chants.
Coastal Carolina played for the Big South tournament title at home in 2010 and 2011 at its old gym as the league's top seed, but lost both times, first to Winthrop and a year later to UNC Asheville. Ellis, 68, said he was not disheartened after those defeats and worked to his players could feel how good it feels to play in the NCAAs.
The HTC Center will host this tournament again next year, the last of a three-season deal. Big South commission Kyle Kallander says the league will sit down this spring to evaluate the past two events and decide its next step. But he praised Coastal Carolina's arena and personnel for their efforts.