|Auburn, Charleston happy to be back in Big Dance|
SAN DIEGO - Twelve rows up, actor/comedian and part-time Charleston resident Bill Murray leaped to his feet and pumped his fists in approval.
Star guard Joe Chealey hugged an assistant coach and did not let go, tears flowing.
The College of Charleston's 83-76 comeback overtime victory over Northeastern in the finals of the one-bid Colonial Athletic Association tournament on March 6 was special for a good reason -- it sent the Cougars to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 19 seasons, back when coach John Kresse had fashioned the program into a mid-major force.
Auburn can relate.
The Tigers (25-7) will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003, although their bid had been secure since they won 16 of their first 17 games in coach Bruce Pearl's fourth season on the Plains.
No. 4 seed Auburn will face the 13th-seeded Cougars (26-7) in a Midwest Regional game Friday at the Viejas Arena on the San Diego State campus. The winner will meet the winner of the Clemson-New Mexico State game Sunday.
"I think this team's got some destiny," College of Charleston coach Earl Grant told reporters after the CAA final. "Amazing toughness. Amazing belief."
"March is just starting. The madness is just starting."
Fifth-year senior Chealey, one of the Cougars' three offensive threats, scored 32 points in the victory over Northeastern, and his layup with 10.1 seconds remaining in regulation tied the game to cap 17-point comeback in the final 17 1/2 minutes.
For Chealey, the on-court celebration was a blur.
"I was crying my eyes out so I didn't really get to see it," Chealey told reporters.
The Cougars have won three in a row and 14 of 15 with Chealey, guard Grant Riller and forward Jarrell Brantley providing much of the punch. Riller is averaging 18.7 points a game this season and 25.8 in his last 10, when he has made 31 of 61 shots from 3-point range. Chealey is right behind at 18.5 per game for the season.
Brantley, who is a powerful 250-pounder, is averaging 17.0 points and 7.1 rebounds and has four straight double-doubles. He missed the first 10 games of the season, including losses to NCAA Tournament teams Wichita State and Rhode Island, with a knee injury.
Brantley gave the Cougars their first lead of the CAA title game in overtime, and reserve guard Marquise Pointer hit two 3-pointers to seal it.
Auburn peaked with a No. 8 ranking after winning 22 of its first 24 games, including victories over Tennessee and Arkansas, but has lost four of six and was outscored 28-3 in the first 10 minutes of the second half in an 81-63 loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
The skid started when 6-foot-7 forward Anfernee McLemore suffered season-ending tibia and ankle injuries in an 84-75 loss at South Carolina. McLemore had a double-double in a 76-66 victory over Kentucky the game before he was injured.
Guards Mustapha Heron (16.6 points per game) and Bryce Brown (16.2) lead the Tigers in scoring, and point guard Jared Harper is averaging 13.7 points and 5.7 assists for a team that lives on the perimeter. Brown and Harper were second-team All-SEC players.
"I've seen the lows, and I've seen the highs," Brown, a junior, told al.com. "Knowing where the program has come from, it's amazing. I feel like we've come a long way this year. We still have a lot of work to be done. We're out there to shock some people."
Pearl put his team through a physical practice Tuesday to prepare for the regional.
"We've got to hit," Pearl told al.com "We're not good enough right now, playing the way we're playing, to go win a game in the tournament. And I think practice can help fix that."
The teams have one common opponent, Hofstra. Auburn beat Hofstra by nine points and College of Charleston won both games in the season series, by six and by one.