Photo credit: Tony Guiterrez, Associated Press
The Charlotte 49ers head to their final Conference USA tournament after two more tight losses to round out C-USA league play. Thursday in San Antonio Charlotte was down by as much as 15 in the 2nd half where they eventually closed it to 1 with under three minutes to play. An ill-advised three-point attempt and a couple of free throws later, the 49ers ended with a 5-point loss to the last place team in the league. Another double-double for Brice Williams, plus a 27-point performance from Aly Khalifa, was not enough to cover arguably Charlotte’s worst defensive performance of conference play. Despite the loss, Charlotte still clinched the 5 seed and bye to the conference quarterfinals due to Rice losing against FAU. Even though the seed was already clinched, Charlotte came out ready for a battle on Saturday in the home finale against UAB. In an intense back and forth double OT affair headlined by UABs Jelly Walker, Charlotte fell just short losing 93-91. Brice Williams and Lu’Cye Patterson were spectacular on offense, combining for 51 points and an impressive 12-15 from the free throw line, add in Igor Milicic 11 rebound performance, Charlotte was just a few bounces their way from another big upset win at home.
Middle Tennessee Preview
Charlotte takes on MTSU for the third time this season after having split the first two, the home team winning both games. While it is their third game, the other two were in December and mid-January. Much has changed about the 49ers since then, Brice Williams was still coming off the bench, Nik Graves was getting far less minutes, pre-Josh Aldrich injury, and a Charlotte as a team is shooting the three better. Just as Charlotte did, MTSU also lost their final two games of the season. Middle Tennessee has three players averaging double figures, Lawrence, Weston and Dishman but the player to keep your eye on is their defensive anchor; lengthy guard Teafale Lenard Jr. is leading the team in both steals and blocks. He will no doubt be matched up on Williams whenever he’s on the court, should be a very entertaining battle between the two. While Charlotte comes in losing consecutive games they will be in high spirits from their final performance of the regular season. The combination of Khalifa, Williams and Patterson should be enough to push Charlotte to the semi-finals where they’d likely face #1 seed FAU. ESPN Analytics has given Charlotte a 54.4% chance of advancing to the semi-finals.
What can go Right or Wrong in Frisco
When it comes to winning three games in consecutive days you need two things. A well-structured defense, which, on their best days, Charlotte has. But you also need players who can create and make their own shot. Charlotte has two guys on the court for most of the game that on any possession can put the ball on the basket if they need. Brice Williams’s midrange and driving game and Lu’Cye Patterson posting up guards creates several easy baskets for this team. While it was in November, the 49ers have shown they can play tournament style basketball, defeating Boise St, who has a shot at an at-large bid and Tulsa before ultimately losing to UMASS in the final of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. It’s simple, low-scoring, grind it out matchups with timely buckets can put Charlotte on a run. They’ve shown they can play with anyone after beating North Texas and coming so close against UAB.
Just as Charlotte is capable of beating anyone in conference, they’ve shown that they can also lose to anyone in the conference. Last week’s performances was the perfect summation of what this team has been this season, they often play to their competition. If the threes are not falling and teams are preventing Khalifa from touching the ball, they tend to just run clock and struggle before putting something up with under five seconds on the shot clock. If they can have intent with each possession, then those issues can be minimized. It may be looked at as a good thing that unless a big upset were to happen the 49ers trip to a conference title wouldn’t involve any of the bottom dwellers of the conference. In all likelihood it involves, MTSU, FAU and then either North Texas or UAB in a conference final.
They don’t call it March Madness for nothing, anything can happen. Tune in Thursday through Saturday on ESPN+ and CBSSN with the goal of seeing Charlotte book a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.