Looking back on UNCW’s NCAA tournament runs


UNCW Athletic Communications

Former UNCW coach Brad Brownell cuts down the nets after winning the 2006 CAA tournament. It was the second conference title in Brownell’s four-year tenure in the Port City.

Jordan Robinson, Contributing Writer

With the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament underway, UNC Wilmington is at home for the second straight year following a 10-23 season.

In honor of March Madness, The Seahawk took a path down memory lane to reminisce on the program’s history and previous tournament appearances that filled the campus and city of Wilmington with pride and joy.

The beginning

In their first season of existence in 1976-77 the Seahawks went 16-10 under coach Mel Gibson. Gibson continued to coach the team for the next eight seasons leading them to six winning records.

It wasn’t until 1984 that UNCW joined the Colonial Athletic Association, where they were coached by Gibson for two years. His tenure was followed by Robert McPherson (1986-90) and Kevin Eastman (1990-94).

Despite some successful seasons, the trio of coaches couldn’t guide the Seahawks to the NCAA tournament nor clinch even a share of the CAA title in their first 10 seasons in the conference. A call to Wake Forest in 1994 was about to change that.

Wainwright puts the ‘W’ in UNCW 

UNCW hired then-Wake Forest coach Jerry Wainwright prior to the 1994-95 season which would change the course of Seahawk basketball forever.

Wainwright led the Seahawks’ to their second season with 10 or more wins in CAA play. It took Wainwright three years to clinch a share of UNCW’s first CAA championship and another to advance to the NIT for the first time in school history.

The Seahawks regressed in conference wins in the next two years but won the 2000 CAA tournament to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time ever. They would only dance once that year before losing to Cincinnati in the first round.

Fourteen first-half points buried the Seahawks in the 64-47 loss. Brett Blizzard struggled against the Bearcats, scoring five points and shot 2-for-8 from the field. It was a performance that would take Blizzard two years to redeem.

In what would become Wainwright’s final year in the Port City, the Seahawks went 23-14 during the 2001-2002 season and earned their second NCAA berth.

The duo of Blizzard and Craig Callahan gave the Seahawks a nine-point halftime lead against Southern California who tied the game late in the second half. The overtime period went back-and-forth as both David Bluthenthal and Callahan fouled out.

Two free throws from Blizzard with 1.7 seconds left proved to be the nail in the coffin and secured UNCW’s first NCAA tournament win over USC, 93-89.

After slaying the Trojans, the Seahawks almost upset Indiana. Trailing by double-digits midway through the second half, Wainwright deployed a full-court press that helped trim the lead to five with 55 seconds to go.

The rally was for naught as UNCW was forced to foul. A few made Hoosier free throws proved the difference and the Wainwright era ended with a 76-67 loss to Indiana.

Brownell keeps it rolling

After Wainwright’s departure, his assistant Brad Brownell was hired and did not miss a beat as senior leaders Callahan and Blizzard led the Seahawks to a 24-6 season and punched their ticket to another NCAA tournament in 2003.

The matchup between UNCW and Maryland was close from the tip. While Callahan and Blizzard struggled from the field with a combined 7-for-30 from the field, freshman John Goldsberry had a career night scoring 26 points with eight made threes.

With five seconds remaining and the Seahawks leading by one, Maryland’s Drew Nicholas drove up the floor off an inbound pass, shot and made a fade-away three to steal the win from UNCW, 75-73.

Three years later the Seahawks found themselves in their second overtime game in the NCAA, this time to George Washington. UNCW couldn’t hold an 18-point second half lead and the Seahawks fell in an overtime period where both teams made a combined four field goals.

Brownell then departed for Wright State after failing to reach a new contract with UNCW. He led the Raiders to their first NCAA berth before taking the Clemson job where he led the Tigers to the Sweet 16 last year.

Keatts sparks the program

In the eight seasons after Brownell left the Port City neither Benny Moss nor Buzz Peterson lasted more than four years. UNCW failed to eclipse 11 wins on six of those eight years.

As hope was lost for the program, newly hired coach Kevin Keatts saw a great deal of promise for the Seahawks. In Keatts’ second season as a collegiate head coach, the Seahawks won 25 games and earned an NCAA tournament berth.

The Seahawks went up against Duke in the first round. The fast-paced play was the focal point of the contest as both teams got out to a hot start as UNCW entered halftime with a three-point lead.

The Blue Devils found their rhythm and controlled the second half while the Seahawks struggled to keep pace, in a 93-85 Blue Devil win. Although the Seahawks lost, the core of guards C.J. Bryce, Chris Flemings and Denzel Ingram showed great promise totaling 51 points combined in the contest.

Much of the previous season’s roster returned the next year and the Seahawks did not disappoint. They won a program-best 29 games in the 2016-17 season and were ranked as high as 26th in national polls.

In their sixth appearance in March Madness, the Seahawks drew another ACC school in Virginia. Flemmings and Ingram scored a combined 35 points, but sophomore guard C.J. Bryce scored eight points, shooting 2-for-11 from the floor.

Despite playing the Cavaliers close throughout, the Seahawks lost 76-71. Keatts was soon hired by NC State and the Seahawks have won a combined 21 games in the two years since under current coach C.B. McGrath.

No player from that last championship remains with the team. McGrath has brought in talent like Kai Toews who broke the CAA’s single-season assist record as a freshman as well as Ty Gadsden who shot 47 percent from three.

Whether McGrath can channel that talent into wins as he continues to rebuild the program will determine if the Seahawks can reach their seventh NCAA tournament sooner rather than later.

Contributing Writer Jordan Robinson can be found on Twitter @JayPicante. Any tips or suggestions should be forwarded via email to bms8544@uncw.edu.