WILMINGTON — Saturday’s exhibition basketball game between UNC Wilmington and Clemson at Trask Coliseum was one of those rare occasions in which there was more than one winner when the final buzzer sounded.
The Tigers actually came out on top on the scoreboard, putting on a late spurt to rally for a 78-67 victory in a much more competitive game than expected. But the Seahawks came away feeling just as good after the confidence boost of leading the nation’s 22nd-ranked team in the nation for most of the afternoon.
The biggest winners, however, were the local charities that will benefit from the more than $50,000 raised by the game for the Hurricane Florence relief effort.
“Hopefully this will be good for the community,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, who spent four seasons from 2003-06 leading UNCW, twice getting the Seahawks to the NCAA tournament.
“It was good in terms of just the game today, but certainly financially, to provide some money for some folks and just to make people feel good was important. It was good for our team and I’m sure it was good for (current UNCW coach C.B. McGrath’s) team, which is nice also.”
Both coaches used their benches more and experimented with different lineup combinations than if it had been a regular season game that counted on their records.
While that meant starters such as Seahawks star Devontae Cacok and Jaylen Fornes were limited to just 26 and 18 minutes respectively, it also gave the sellout crowd of 4,142 get its first look at several newcomers that figure prominently in McGrath’s plans.
The most impressive of those was freshman point guard Kai Toews.
A youngster who spent most of the summer playing for the Japanese national team, showed some uncharacteristic aggressiveness for a freshman playing his first college game against a tough, veteran opponent.
Though he made a few mistakes, he offset them by scoring five points and handing out five assists while keeping his team playing at a high tempo for the majority of his 22 minutes on the floor.
Though McGrath wouldn’t go as far as to officially name Towes a starter for UNCW’s regular season opener at Campbell on Nov. 6, he didn’t rule it out either, based on the youngster’s impressive performance.
“He’s a gamer,” said McGrath, whose team went 11-21 in his first season a year ago. “He played great. He looked a lot better in this game than he has in practice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s trying at practice. He might just be thinking too much and his instincts kick in out here and got us some shots, which we want him to do.”
The Seahawks made a lot of those shots in the first half, a period in which they made 57.1 percent of their attempts and built as much as an eight point lead just before halftime. Clemson clamped down defensively to start the second half, holding UNCW scoreless for the first 6:17 of the period.
But even then, the Seahawks — with Fornes and Ty Taylor doing most of the scoring — still led 60-57 with just over eight minutes remaining.
That’s when the experience of Clemson and its veteran backcourt of Shelton Mitchell and Marquise Reed finally began to make a difference. The Tigers surged into the lead with an 8-0 run that finally gave them the separation they needed to pull away for the victory.
“It wasn’t easy for our guys in a lot of ways, which made this really good for us,” Brownell said. “What I’m more proud of is the way we went in at halftime. I challenged my older players, we made two or three adjustments and we executed them defensively in the second half.”
Reed and Mitchell both finished with 19 points while sophomore forward Aamir Simms led Clemson with 20 points and six rebounds. Taylor, a junior who started his career at Wichita State, led the way for UNCW with 17 points. Fornes made the most of his limited playing time by scoring 15 while Cacok had six points and eight rebounds.
“I thought we played really well for the most part of the game and I think we’re going to be really good going throughout the season,” Taylor said. “So this just gives us confidence, because I feel like we were one or two minutes away from winning that game.”