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College of Charleston’s journey has been one of overcoming adversity

March 14, 2018 Columns No Comments

In early September 2014, everything changed in the program at the College of Charleston. Out was conduct frankly unbecoming of a basketball coach, and in was a more understated, high-character leader. Out was going after players verbally, and in was a message of faith.

The end result, after a journey of a few years, is much better in every way possible.

“I say this to a lot of people: the best thing that’s happened to College of Charleston happened with Coach Grant,” senior guard Joe Chealey said after the Cougars won the CAA Tournament.

Earl Grant was hired to take over the program on September 2, 2014. He checks every box you could want generally, but especially for the situation at the time: a solid basketball background, high character and a North Charleston native who attended R.B. Stall High School, the same school that produced Cougar star guard Anthony Johnson. As if that’s not enough, his wife graduated from the school. Grant grew up admiring the program and thinks about what is happening now in terms of what it means for the city and the community.

Call him a southern gentleman if you want. While a bit cliché, it fits.

The fourth-year head coach speaks often about faith, and that has resonated with his players. He was quick to call on it on TV and in the post-game after the Cougars won the CAA Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999, and that is not him seizing a convenient opportunity. It is very much a part of who he is. Chealey, who played for the prior coach and has had a career overcoming adversity that included missing a season due to a ruptured Achilles, certainly took to it.

“I don’t think you can really accomplish anything without faith,” said the senior guard, who could have transferred but stayed the course. “I think you have to have that on top the work and everything that goes into achieving a goal that you want. (Grant has) preached that from day one, having faith and believing that we could reach our ultimate goal, which is winning a championship.”

His adversity, plus other instances the program has faced since Grant took over, all shaped this season’s championship run.

In year two, expectations were for growing pains, with a remade roster following a 9-24 season. But Chealey was not the only one who got hurt, as Grant Riller had to miss the season with an injury as well. That meant they were young and had to go without two future All-CAA players. While growing pains happened, the foundation was laid with plenty of promising results: a 17-14 campaign highlighted by a win over LSU and nearly knocking off Davidson, as well as talented young players getting a lot of experience.

With that, expectations shot up, and the Cougars got to the championship game last year but couldn’t pull it out against UNCW. Chealey, who recovered very well and made a great case for CAA Player of the Year, said he stayed to watch the ceremony to help that become an additional motivator. Even while Charleston figured to be among the preseason favorites again this year – and they were picked to win the CAA – he knew getting back to it was no guarantee.

Right away, they got a sign of that reality. The day before the season opener against Siena, junior forward Jarrell Brantley tweaked his knee near the end of practice, and just a couple of hours before the game, they got word he would not play. The All-CAA forward would sit out the first ten games of the season, and that meant two adjustments: at first without him, then when he came back. Grant said it probably took about three games after he returned to fully re-adjust. It was, however, one more place where they developed a deeper and stronger bench through injuries.

It’s something that sounds good in theory, and is talked about when a team loses a player and others have to play more, perhaps before they are ready. It doesn’t always work out that way, though in this case it did. And it showed up especially in the championship game.

Charleston had to battle back against a Northeastern team that was on a roll in the CAA Tournament. They were down by 17, but rallied to send the game to overtime. There, up three just a couple of minutes in, reserve guard Marquise Pointer hits the shot of his life to this point, a three-pointer that put the Cougars up by six and changed everything. It put so much pressure on the Huskies even though there was plenty of time left, and they never recovered.

Said Grant: “We had been down so much, that six-point lead felt like a 12-point lead.”

For his part, Pointer is one of those who benefited from a lot of early playing time. He was also a one-time teammate on the travel circuit of former Kentucky star Malik Monk, so he’s been in some battles by now. He played early and often, and has been a key part of this team even though he wasn’t an all-conference performer.

“He’s just an absolute winner,” Chealey said of Pointer. “He doesn’t get a lot of the credit that he probably deserves. He’s overlooked because a lot of things he does doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but we can’t win without him.”

After the tough loss last year, and after the growing pains leading up to it, Charleston is back in the NCAA Tournament. The local boy is a hometown hero, but doesn’t act like it; he loves what it does for the city, the school and the players. Through it all, he calls on his faith, just like his team has come to, as evidenced in comments made after the championship game about the journey that night and over time.

“If you’re going through tough times, you’ve got to believe that that’s part of the process; if you’re having great success, you’ve got to believe that’s part of the process,” Grant reflected. “I think our faith has been something that’s really helped me, the coaching staff and some players.”

At the College of Charleston, bad vibes around the program are out. Faith, a return to the NCAA Tournament and a better overall program are very much in.

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