WASHINGTON, DC -- Perhaps the most important change in Tuesday's CAA Tournament championship didn't take place during the action. In fact, it was barely noticeable and delivered with barely a whisper.
It came in halftime warmups.
College of Charleston was down 27-24 to the athletic, feisty, and hard-charging Seahawks of UNC Wilmington.
The Cougars had gone 10-for-29 from the field and 2-for-14 from 3. Ryan Larson had kept them afloat with eight points, but assistant coach Thomas Carr noticed something in his shooting form.
"Sometimes my legs and follow-through change a little bit when I miss some shots," Larson said. "Even if I'm making it, he reminds me to stick to what I do."
It required a mental adjustment as much as a physical one.
"He's such an efficient player, but he also cares so much that he'll psych himself out," Carr said. "I just reminded him, 'Your shot is different than my shot than anybody else's shot. Set your ball, stay in your shot 'til it goes in.'
"One of the most coachable kids I've ever had. [He] listened, executed, has put in all the work to earn the right to get everything he's getting."
What he's earned is a CAA Tournament championship. What he's getting is another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Behind 23 points from Larson -- later named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player -- and a clutch late bucket from Ante Brzovic, Charleston punched its ticket to the big dance with a 63-58 win over UNCW.
Charleston's 31 wins are the most in the country and a new CAA record. The Cougars had a 20-game winning streak that spanned more than two months, lost two straight, and are now on a 10-game winning streak. Those things don't happen with halftime adjustments alone. They started well before the season began.
"From Day 1, we had a meeting at coach [Pat Kelsey's] house, and just the togetherness that we showed on day one -- not to compare to my freshman year at Wofford, but that was one of the most special and connected groups I've been a part of -- and it felt just like that," Larson said. "There's so much that happens on the court before the season, but to stick with each other for six months off the court, if not longer, that's when I knew it was special."
It takes great groups to dominate the way Charleston has this year. It takes special groups to finish the job in the postseason. Charleston needed second-half rallies in the semifinal against Towson -- where the Cougars posted their worst field goal percentage of the season -- and again in the final against a UNCW that left both Brzovic and Dalton Bolon visibly bruised and bloodied.
In Kelsey's introductory press conference at Charleston in 2021, he said he wanted "hoop dudes." Guys who are all about winning games. He has them in this group.
"Skip Prosser, my mentor -- the other way he put it was he wants six-to-three guys," Kelsey said of his former head coach when he played at Xavier. "A three-to-six guy shows up at three [o'clock] and leaves at six and does the bare minimum. A six-to-three guy is the guy who leaves at six and does everything he can 'til the next day he can at three o'clock to be a great player."
In the second half, Larson was that "dude," working extra on both ends. He swished a 3-pointer on the first possession, Carr's encouragement still ringing in his ears. He had a steal on the ensuing possession. In the second half alone, Larson had 15 points, made all four of his team's 3-pointers, registered four steals, and added an assist.
The Cougars finished the game on an 18-5 run. The key over that stretch?
"Ryan Larson helped," Kelsey deadpanned.
Brzovic also helped. With under a minute left and UNCW trailing 59-56, the Seahawks smothered Charleston for nearly the entire shot clock. Brzovic dribbled. No separation. He spun. No separation. He faked a pass. No separation. Then he stepped through and launched a one-footed floater. It went through -- the final two of his 16 points on the night, 12 of which came in the second half.
HOW DID HE MAKE THAT!? @CofCBasketball wow Ante Brzovic! #CAAHoops on @CBSSportsNet pic.twitter.com/7pt45MGfks— CAA Basketball (@CAABasketball) March 8, 2023
On the ensuing possession, Ben Burnham came through with a huge block on what initially appeared to be an open layup from Shykeim Phillips. Moments later, when the buzzer sounded, Brzovic collapsed to the floor, overcome with emotion.
"Amazing," Brzovic said. "The emotions that I went through... when you work for something really hard since June and you overcome all the challenges, difficulties, injuries, you just let yourself loose. It's hard to explain."
Brzovic, playing through two cuts below his left eye, a bruise both above and below the eye, and burst blood vessels in the eye itself, wasn't too upset about his latest injury.
"I like my black eye," Brzovic said. "So many girls tell me they want to take care of me once I go back home, so I'll take advantage of that. I love it!"
Brzovic and his team aren't going home anytime soon, though. The hoop dudes have more hoops to play.
Kelsey and Larson have been through this before -- Kelsey with Winthrop twice and Larson on that aforementioned 2018-19 Wofford team. Still, the feeling of advancing was overwhelming for both. Larson said it wouldn't hit him until his team hears its name called Sunday. Kelsey was finally able to put things in perspective.
"When somebody said '31 wins,' that's the first time it really resonated with me," Kelsey said. "It was like, 'Damn, that's hard to do.' So I took a moment.
"A season's a lifetime, and it's gonna be good to get home and recover."
When Charleston does hear its name called, its opponent will be on notice. Having thirty-one wins will do that. Having the conference's most efficient offense and second-most efficient defense will do that. Kelsey's team will be a popular Cinderella pick, and for good reason.
"It's something that you can't really put into words, like the feeling of months and months and years of hard work, especially with this group of guys," said Reyne Smith, whose two late free throws clinched the win. "It's unbelievable. This team just doesn't stop."
With a talented group of guards, a standout big man, veteran leadership, and a coach who has put all of those pieces together in record-setting fashion, don't expect that to change, even on the sport's biggest stage.