College of Charleston coach Earl Grant was hired on the second day of September in 2014.
Early the next morning, Grant made a call to a skinny, shooting guard with a funky release down in Orlando. It was Grant’s first recruiting call as the head coach at College of Charleston.
A month later, that same skinny kid from Orlando – Grant Riller – made an official visit to Charleston and fell in love with the campus and its head coach.
It’s been a love affair between coach and player ever since.
In his final game home game, Riller finished with 25 points to lead four players in double figures as College of Charleston defeated Drexel 75-66 Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 5,072 at TD Arena.
It was the second straight victory for the Cougars (17-13, 11-7 Colonial Athletic Association), while the Dragons fell to 13-18 and 6-12.
Charleston will finish no lower than the No. 4 seed in next week’s CAA Tournament, which will be held in Washington, D.C. The Cougars could finish as the No. 3 seed but won’t know their seeding or their opponent until after Sunday's Towson-Northeastern game.
Riller came to the Lowcountry five years ago with the reputation of being an elite scorer. Few would argue the point. Riller has 2,448 points, second most in school history and good for third all-time in the CAA. Riller helped lead the Cougars program back to prominence, earning bids to the NIT and NCAA Tournament.
“He’s the first guy that believed in me and the program and what we were building, we built it together,” Grant said. “We’ve got a lot of great memories, hopefully there are still some memories to be made. He means a lot to me. I’m sure we’ll continue to have a relationship for next 40, 50 years, depending on how long I live.”
Grant has been around great players during his coaching career. As an assistant coach at Wichita State and Clemson, he worked with future NBA players. Riller ranks among the best he’s ever coached.
“He’s certainly in the mix of some of the best players I’ve been around, no matter what level,” Grant said. “He’s a special guy, a special player. He’s been around special players here at College of Charleston. Joe Chealey and Jarrell Brantley have gone onto the NBA, and I think that helped Grant see what was possible.”
With a little more than six seconds left in the game and the final result no longer in doubt, Riller exited the floor for the final time to a standing ovation from the more than 5,000 fans at TD Arena.
“The fans were amazing,” said Riller, who made 9 of 16 from the floor in the victory. “It hasn’t sunk in yet that this was my last game here. Not yet. I don’t think it’ll hit me until after the season is over. It sucks that I won’t ever get to play here again, but I’m satisfied with the way it ended.”
Riller wasn’t the only senior to say goodbye to TD Arena and its fans. Sam Miller, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, and Jaylen McManus, who had 13 points and six rebounds, also played in their final home games. Former team manager Zach Ribinowitz, a senior, started the game and knocked down a 3-pointer early in the contest.
“It was a very emotional day,” Grant said. “There are a lot of great memories with this senior class.”
After stumbling the last two weeks, the Cougars appeared to rediscover their identity and shooting touch this week against Delaware and Drexel. Wins against the Blue Hens and Dragons have the Cougars building momentum as they head toward the conference tournament.
“The win on Thursday definitely gave us some confidence, a little more pep in our step, some swagger,” Miller said. “I think we are definitely feeling a lot more confident after these two wins. Coach has been talking about playing our best basketball in March, and we might not be there yet, but we’re getting closer, trending in the right direction after these last two games.”
Grant had started to see glimpses of what this team could be as far back as two weeks ago. But a horrid shooting night against UNC Wilmington – 1 of 21 from 3-point range – last weekend overshadowed the progress the team had been making.
“I felt like we were headed in the right direction two weeks ago,” Grant said. “I felt like defensively we were headed in the right direction before the loss. We just didn’t shoot the ball well. We lost the game, but we were still doing some good things. Losing never feels good and it doesn’t look good to the crowd, but sometimes, it can help make you stronger. Sometimes you do good things after you struggle.”
The Cougars got several key stops over the final four minutes of the game Saturday. It’s that kind of defensive performance down the stretch that makes Grant optimistic about next week’s CAA Tournament.
“We needed to be in that position to get stops to win a game, because in March, that’s what a lot of games will come down to,” Grant said. “I was happy we were able to get crucial, multiple stops late in the game when we needed them. We showed the ability to get stops under pressure.”
Zap Jasper finished with 12 points and three assists.
The Cougars will head to Washington for the CAA Tournament, which will begin Saturday at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
The Cougars, who will finish no lower than the fourth seed for the tournament, will not play until Sunday against an opponent to be determined.