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Campbell's magical run falls just short in Big South final

Campbell's Jay Pal throws home a dunk in Sunday's Big South final (Photo: Campbell Athletics)

CHARLOTTE – Seven minutes and 39 seconds. That amount of time had to feel more like 31 years.

Admittedly, part of the reason each second felt like hours was because Campbell last appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1992. The Camels took out Davidson, Liberty, and Charleston Southern that season to win the league title in Anderson, S.C., then went on to face Duke in the tournament. Mark Mocnik scored 29 points in the game, but Duke ran away from the scrappy Big South champs – earning a silly “Duke Smokes Camels” headline from the Baltimore Sun in the process – in an 82-56 victory.

“Coming in, I’m sure (Duke) thought Campbell would be an easy win,” Mocnik said after that game. “I hope that they left thinking, ‘Hey, they’re scrappers and they played hard.’ ”

Now, in 2023, the Camels were on the verge of another improbable run. Campbell led, 64-52, and the orange-and-black-clad fans seated behind the bench seemed to be cautiously optimistic. There was an excitement, sure, but the fans who ventured over from Buies Creek were careful not to get too confident.

Their team, however, had no such lack of confidence. The Camels had just plowed through three opponents in four days, turning away two of the top three seeds and having the other – top-seeded Asheville – on the ropes. Jay Pal had already achieved a career-high. Anthony Dell’Orso had a game-winning bucket in his pocket from the prior round. There seemed every reason that every national talk show, podcast, and media outlet would turn its attention to Harnett County for the next two weeks.

Then, Tajion Jones started hitting shots. He only stopped once. Jones produced 16 of Asheville’s final 18 points from the field. That 12-point advantage – which grew to 14 just seconds later – slowly and almost achingly evaporated. Six minutes and 44 seconds later, it was gone. Asheville had scored 25 of the game’s final 34 points, winning 77-73 and leaving Campbell staggered.

“I think we played really good basketball. We got better as the season went along,” Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan said after the game. “Arguably the best player that we had played five games this year, and other guys really stepped up. (Pal and Dell’Orso) played unbelievably. We went through a lot. We just kept working and got better and were playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”

The best player to whom McGeehan refers is forward Jesus Carralero, who played in those five games over the first two weeks of the Camels’ season and finished in double figures three times. The 6-foot-8 forward from Spain proved a wonderful fit for McGeehan’s offense, slashing to the bucket, hitting triples, and using his court vision to find cutters under the bucket. Though his loss was painful, Pal capably filled in and helped spur the Campbell offense.

Those seven minutes, though. As much as one could never justify using those minutes to define a season – especially in the case of this particular team – it seemed inescapable that they would become a topic of conversation after the game.

“We were just trying to stay calm,” guard Ricky Clemons said when referring to Asheville’s pressure. “It just kind of gets you rattled.”

Those words create a harsh contrast when placed against Clemons’ words just 24 hours earlier.

“We’ve gotta control what we can control. If they go on runs, we’ve gotta stay level,” Clemons said after the semifinal victory over Radford. “We can’t get too high or can’t get too low at any point of the game. We just need to stay poised and do what we do.”

In the end, the Campbell players seemed to acknowledge the strides they had made through the year.

“I’m proud of our team,” Pal said. “We went pretty far. We fought hard every game. You win some and you lose some.”

The ending was not the one imagined by the Hollywood script writers, however. The Camels – who also made the finals as a seventh-seeded club in 2017 – could have hoisted the Big South trophy as their final act in a conference of which they were a founding member, despite a brief detour to the ASUN. The school will again depart later in 2023 – this time for the CAA.

This team seemed different than the prior two McGeehan has taken to championship contests. The obvious difference is that the others took place on Winthrop’s home floor. The not-so-obvious difference was the calm demeanor, the intelligence, and the resolve with which Campbell took the floor in Charlotte.

“We’re just believing in each other. That takes you a long way,” McGeehan said after the semifinal win over Radford.

Aside from the approach with which the team attacked the tournament, McGeehan acknowledged the differences between this team and the prior two playing for championships on his watch.

“I think the biggest thing this year for me was that I didn’t really come in with any expectations. We had seven or eight new players. I have whole new coaching staff,” McGeehan said. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s just get to work and we’ll figure it out.’ My guys have been unbelievably responsive to that approach. I think last year, for example, there was a certain set of ideas about how the season was supposed to go, and when it wasn’t exactly like that, it added more strain or whatever.

“We’ve had our fair amount of adversity with injuries and stuff like that," McGeehan continued. "Because we’ve just kept working, I think it’s just made us way tougher and more resilient. When we talk about not being affected by a foul call or a turnover – we’ve been through way more than that. We’ve just been through a lot. I think there’s a certain different feel to this team because of that, and it makes them special.”

Campbell (16-18) was guided by Pal’s career-high 26. Pal also turned in a double-double by gathering 10 boards. Clemons added 17 on 6-of-11 shooting and 3-of-6 from distance. Dell’Orso hit 5-of-13 from the deck, tallying 12. The Camels hit 46.8 percent (29-for-62) from the field, knocking down nine threes on 24 tries. Campbell scored 40 of its points in the paint and outpaced Asheville, 14-7, in second-chance points.


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