The College Basketball Invitational doesn’t get quite the same fanfare as the NCAA Tournament, especially this year with rivals North Carolina and Duke set to meet in Saturday’s national semifinal in what could very well be the most anticipated matchup in the event’s storied history.
But as far as UNC Wilmington coach Takayo Siddle is concerned, there’s no difference between the joy his players felt while cutting down the nets following their CBI championship in Daytona Beach last week and that of the team that ultimately wins the national title in New Orleans on Monday.
“I can only imagine what it’s like to win a national championship,” Siddle said. “We’ve been through a lot and we fell short in our conference tournament. For us to be able to end the season on a high note and win a postseason championship was special.”
The Seahawks (27-9) came agonizingly close to earning a spot in the 68-team NCAA bracket before losing to fifth-seeded Delaware in the Colonial Athletic Association final.
The disappointment of that defeat was compounded when conference rival Towson, with whom UNCW tied for the regular season league crown, was chosen ahead of them by the NIT.
Even though the CBI allowed the Seahawks to keep playing, Siddle said his players seemed to treat it as more of a consolation prize rather than an opportunity.
At least initially.
“It was tough to get them to practice longer than an hour and get energetic,” the second-year coach said. “We had to go get that first game under our belt and win it. After that they got excited, and I could tell they wanted to be there and compete for a championship.”
That first game, a 93-78 victory against VMI, was followed by a 76-75 victory against Drake, the No. 1 seed in the 16-team field. UNCW then beat Northern Colorado 80-64 to advance to the championship game — its fourth game in as many days — where it outlasted Middle Tennessee 96-90 in double overtime.
Siddle called the final win “fitting” because of the way it summed up his team’s entire season.
Twelve of the Seahawks’ 27 wins this season came by six points or less. Ten of their wins came after trailing by 10 points or more. And five of their wins came in overtime.
The CBI final against MTSU checked all those boxes.
While the clutch performances from tournament MVP Jaylen Sims and fellow seniors Mike Okauru and Jaylen Fornes were also familiar, it took unexpected contributions from deep reserves Jamarii Thomas and Khadim Samb to bring home the trophy.
Thomas averaged 6.9 minutes per game and Samb saw action in only 14 contests this season. But pressed into service after four regulars fouled out, each went 3 of 4 from the free-throw line in the overtimes to pull UNCW through.
“Guys had to step up, and we won a game when everybody said we were going to lose,” said Sims, who tied Okauru with a team-leading 28 points against MTSU. “Only four or five teams in the nation can say they ended their season in a win, and we were one of those. I still haven’t grasped the idea of us winning 27 games this year and basically beating the odds.”
To put the Seahawks’ success into perspective, they were only able to muster 27 wins in the three previous seasons combined.
Sims is one of several players that endured the struggles and stayed to help turn the program around. The 6-foot-6 senior wing from Charlotte said he and his fellow holdovers bought into Siddle immediately after the former NC State and UNCW assistant was hired to replace C.B. McGrath in April 2020.
“In the low times, it sucked. It was so hard to find any energy or enjoyment in what you were doing,” Sims said. “When you have a new coach there’s always an adjustment. But he had won at UNCW before, and he had a lot of pride in UNCW. I respected that aspect of it.”
By winning a postseason tournament, the last two games of which were nationally televised by ESPN2, Sims and his fellow upperclassmen did more than just add a banner to the rafters of Trask Coliseum.
According to Siddle, they helped lay a foundation for those that follow.
“This gives us a lot of momentum moving forward with our younger guys that are coming back and in recruiting,” he said. “To have the experience of playing in the postseason through March definitely helps us out.
“We’re in a really good place. We have some holes to fill, but we have some really good players in the program and the culture has been set. (Winning the CBI) is nothing but positive for our group.”