49ers caps season with CBI title

Charlotte defeated Eastern Kentucky in the postseason tournament’s title game

Ron Sanchez (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Despite starting the 2022-23 season with 11 wins in 14 games, the Charlotte 49ers extended their men’s NCAA Tournament drought to 18 years, putting further in the past the program’s glory days when it made eight trips to the Big Dance from 1995 to 2005.

This year’s team finished fifth in Conference USA play with a 9-11 record and was knocked out in the first round of the conference tournament following a one-point loss to Middle Tennessee State.


But that wasn’t the end of the season for fifth-year coach Ron Sanchez and the 49ers.

“As a whole, the group wanted to keep the season going and they didn’t want it to end there,” Sanchez said of the loss to the Blue Raiders. “We set some goals for ourselves to send our seniors on a good note and try to end the season not only with a victory but with a nice win streak.”

They did just that.

It culminated March 22 when third-seeded Charlotte beat eighth-seeded Eastern Kentucky 71-68 to win the College Basketball Invitational tournament in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Six-foot-11 sophomore forward Aly Khalifa had a game-high 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting in the title game, and Huntersville junior wing Brice Williams was named CBI Most Valuable Player after averaging 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the tournament.

“When there’s an individual award, the individual gets the credit, but it’s really the team,” Sanchez said of Williams. “People see the scoreboards and the baskets, but when you have individuals who are willing to do the little things, that’s the real important part. As important as it is to have a guy that gets an award, it’s more important that you have a group of guys around him that put him in a position to shine and use his talents.”

To reach the title game, Charlotte first overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to defeat No. 14 Western Carolina 65-56 score in the CBI’s first round. Sanchez said the comeback win over the Catamounts set the tone for the rest of the tournament.

“That game was a little nerve-wracking because it was an in-state rival, and I think emotionally it was just one of those types of games. But it was fun,” he said. “Playing four games in five days is really challenging overall, so you have to get past that first game so you can prepare yourself for what’s coming.”

The Niners followed up that first-round victory with wins over No. 11 Milwaukee and No. 10 Radford in the second and third rounds, respectively.

In the championship game, the Niners saw a 20-point lead nearly disappear as Eastern Kentucky climbed within one point with 51 seconds remaining.

The 49ers responded when sophomore guard Isaiah Folkes passed to senior guard Montre’ Gipson, who converted a layup to give Charlotte a three-point lead with 18 seconds left. Williams then blocked EKU’s Cooper Robb on his attempt to force overtime to give Charlotte the title.

The win was the 49ers’ 22nd of the season, the most for the program since it reached the second round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament.

“We had been playing really good basketball, but we had just come up short or someone had made some spectacular play,” Sanchez said of the team’s season. “I think they were always encouraged even when we lost to UAB in double-overtime by two and then lost to Middle Tennessee by one.

“They wanted to continue playing, and it ended in a positive way. … It was awesome for our guys and our staff. It was a neat experience.”