Grant Riller had seen this kind of game before from Joe Chealey.
As high school rivals from Orlando, Fla., Riller had watched helplessly as Chealey would take over a game and beat his Ocoee High School team nearly single-handedly.
This time, Riller got to watch Chealey work his magic as a teammate. Riller admitted it was much better view this time.
Chealey scored 29 points, including 25 in the second half, and Riller added 12 points, including a crucial 3-pointer with less than two minutes to play, to lead the No. 2-seeded College of Charleston past No. 3 seed Towson 67-59 Sunday afternoon in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Charleston (25-8) will face top-seeded UNC Wilmington (28-5), a 105-94 winner over William & Mary in Sunday’s other semifinal matchup, in the championship game with a bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line Monday night beginning at 7 p.m. The game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.
Charleston and Wilmington split their regular-season series with each team winning on the other team’s home court.
Trailing by seven points midway through the second half, Chealey, who missed all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury, put the Cougars on his back and willed them to the championship game.
During a six-minute span, Chealey scored 15 points, including 13 straight as the Cougars clawed their way back into the game.
It was nothing that Riller hadn’t seen Chealey do before.
“Joe used to beat us up in high school,” Riller said. “He’s a great player. You guys might be seeing it for the first time, but I’ve seen him do it a bunch of times before. It’s an honor to be on the same team with him. That’s just the kind of player Joe is. The bigger the moment, the better he plays.”
The fact that he’d missed his first three 3-pointers of the game didn’t diminish Chealey’s confidence or stop him from making 3 of 4 in the second half. He was also fouled twice attempting 3-pointers and made 5 of 6 free throws.
“To be honest, I was just taking what the defense was giving me,” Chealey said. “We’ve got a lot of freedom offensively as long as we’re playing good defense and giving good effort. I got so caught up in the game, I was just trying to make plays. I didn’t realize how much I was scoring. It was an emotional game and I was just trying to make some plays that would help this team win.”
For College of Charleston coach Earl Grant, Chealey’s performance was no surprise.
“Joe’s a winner, he’s a general out there on the floor,” Grant said. “He’s a great point guard. I’ve been coaching college basketball for 17 years and I’ve been around a lot of great point guards, and he’s one of the best I’ve been around. It doesn't matter if he’s scoring or having a great night passing the ball, Joe is tough, and those are the kind of players you need to win at this level. He’s one of the reasons why we’re sitting where we are right now.”
It was another physical, grinding effort against the Tigers. The Cougars, who did not shoot well for much of the game, shot just 33 percent from the floor in the first half as the Tigers jumped to a 26-21 advantage.
“They only scored 26 points, so I felt good about the way we were playing defensively,” Grant said. “I knew if they scored 52 points for the game, we’d win. We just had to clean up some things on the offensive end, rebound a little bit better and start to finish around the basket.”
Chealey started the comeback, hitting his first 3 of the game and cutting the Tigers' lead to 36-33 with 11:25 to play.
After a layup from Jarrell Brantley, Chealey recorded the next 13 points, seven coming on free throws and two more 3-pointers for good measure to give the Cougars a 47-46 advantage with 5:55 to play.
“Chealey was the difference in the game,” said Towson coach Pat Skerry. “He kind of took over for them. We played some zone, we put some different guys on him, but he made some huge plays for them.”
After another Brantley layup with 3:50 to play that put the Cougars up 55-50, Towson scored four straight points, making it one-point game at 55-54 with 2:12 to play.
With the shot clock running down on the Cougars' next possession, Riller nailed a 3-pointer from the corner to give the Cougars a 58-54 advantage with 1:46 remaining.
“That was a killer,” Skerry said.
After a Towson miss, Cameron Johnson connected on a 3-pointer and added a steal and a layup to give the Cougars a 63-54 lead 49.9 seconds to go, and the celebration was on.
“Cam is winner, but we’ve got a lot of winners on this team,” Grant said.
The Cougars and Seahawks have been the best two teams in the CAA all season, so a showdown for an NCAA bid Monday seemed natural.
“They beat us at our place and we beat them at their place,” Grant said. “They’re a great team, playing really well now. We’re just blessed to be in this position, and we’ll come up with a game plan and try to come out and play the best we can.”