It's been a long time but Cliff Ellis showed he still has lots of rhythm Sunday evening when he and his Coastal Carolina basketball team (21-12) learned they would be playing Virginia (28-6) on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Coastal in the NCAA Tournament
Coastal in the NCAA
1991: Beat Jackson State, 78-59, in the play-in game. Then lost to Indiana, 79-69, in the first round.
1993: Lost in first round to eventual runner-up Michigan, 84-52.
Back in his younger days the 68-year-old Ellis was the lead singer of the beach music band The Villagers. On Sunday night Ellis had his players and fans singing and dancing at The HTC Center in celebration of the school's first visit to the Big Dance since 1993.
"When you get in this situation you're on top of the world," said Ellis, who became the 10th coach in Division I history to lead four different programs to the NCAA tournament. Ellis also made it to the tournament during stops at South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn.
"The opportunity at Coastal Carolina has not come often, so when it does come you want to capitalize. It's a national scope and you want to make the most of it. I'm proud for our university that we're getting the opportunity."
The Chanticleers earned the school's third NCAA tournament appearance with a 76-61 win over Winthrop in the Big South championship game played at The HTC Center in Conway. The school's two previous appearances came in 1991 and 1993 under former coach Russ Bergman, who left the school in 1994 under the cloud of an NCAA investigation. Bergman now coaches professionally in Russia.
Ellis said he can draw comparisons with his 1979 South Alabama team making the NCAA tournament for the first time and will draw on that for inspiration. He said the Jaguars were a Cinderella school in what was then a 32-team tournament. They drew Louisville, a national power led by future NBA star Darrell Griffith.
"With a minute and a half to go we're down by one in Dallas, on CBS, and we missed a backdoor layup that would have put us up. We ended up losing, but had we won that would have put us in the Sweet 16.
"The Cinderella slipper was almost on," recalled Ellis, who also led South Alabama to the tournament the following season.
During 10 seasons at Clemson (1984-94), the Tigers played in the NCAA tournament three times, making it to the Sweet 16 in 1990 where the Tigers rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to take the lead over Connecticut only to see the Huskies hurl the ball the length of the court and make a last-second basket for a 71-70 win.
"That's still one of the toughest losses a team, a player, a coach could endure," Ellis said. "To get to the Sweet 16 at Clemson is not an easy task and you don't get that chance very often."
Ellis also coached 10 seasons at Auburn (1994-2004), making the NCAA tournament three times. Auburn was a No. 1 seed in 1999 and made the Sweet 16, and in 2003 the Tigers lost to eventual national champion Syracuse by one point.
"I've always said 'One more basket. What if?' That could have been a national championship," Ellis said.
Ellis said this year's NCAA tournament experience was unexpected.
"In August we knew we were inexperienced and even in January we didn't see it coming," Ellis said. "We started out 7-8 so it turned around and just became one of those magical years where everything fell into place ... It's the epitome of the game and what you shoot for as a college program, a college player, a college team. You want the Big Dance and we're in it. So we're enjoying the heck out of it."
Ellis said he wasn't surprised that the team drew ACC champion Virginia as its first-round opponent. He knew Coastal Carolina would more than likely be a No. 16 seed or "at best a 15 seed." He said he expected a first-round matchup with either Virginia or a Florida school because of his ACC and SEC ties.
"Now we know who we play and it's a matter of getting to work," he said. "(The ACC) over the years is probably the premier league in college basketball. I know we have a tough task, but I like the fact that it's in Raleigh from the standpoint that it gives our people a chance to get there.
"There's never been a 16 seed that's ever beat a No. 1 seed in the history of the game, so that's our challenge. This is the shining moment. It's the NCAA tournament. It's a great feeling, one that we want to enjoy, but also understand we've had a fun week. We have to get really serious and focused and come out and compete."