Third time’s the charm? Sea Devils try to reverse fortune against Knights

Tyler Heffernan | Sea Devil Journalist

WILMINGTON, N.C. - Ryan Mantlo leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and spoke about Hutchinson, Kan.—the host city of the NJCAA National Tournament—as a "when" scenario, instead of an "if." One day before his Cape Fear Community College men's basketball team starts its postseason run, he was relaxed.

The Sea Devils finished the regular season with a 14-16 record and earned a first round Region 10 tournament game against Aiken Technical College, a team that beat the Sea Devils twice this year. But, Mantlo was optimistic knowing CFCC survived roster shuffling, conference parity and the highest expectations he's ever had as a coach after the Sea Devils finished eighth in the country in the previous season's national championships.

 The playoffs reset every team's regular season performances, though, and the phrase "March Madness" implies that anything can happen. It was time for CFCC to go on a business trip to Bridges Arena, the site of this year's Region 10 tournament and the home of the host—and regular season champion—Spartanburg Methodist College. 

The Sea Devils have won three of their past four games, and momentum is the best thing to pack on a road trip. Mantlo had a reason to be pleased.

"Winning is contagious; losing is contagious," he said. "We got in that funk when we were losing, and it can become contagious and hard to get out of sometimes. Us being able to win those past couple games has brought a sense of confidence."

Although entering the conference tournament as a No. 5 seed wasn't the plan at the start of the year, the Sea Devils can refer to history as an indication that winning from their position can be done. "My first time we won it, we were the five seed," Mantlo said, referring to the 2009 championships played at Brunswick Community College. "Brunswick was the No. 1. It's laid out the same way. If that team can do it, this team is 10 times more talented."

CFCC won't show up at Bridges Arena and expect a game on Saturday. Thursday's date with Aiken Tech stands in its way. In the two games against the Knights, Jan. 21 and Feb. 11, CFCC's Emmanuel Andrews averaged 18 points and Faronte Drakeford added 12.5 points—both right at their season averages. Back-up big man Randell Jones tallied seven rebounds in both contests.
 
Aiken Tech received considerable contribution from Maurice Strong, whose name alone implies a frontcourt presence. The 6-foot-6-inch freshman scored 22 points and grabbed 15 boards in the first meeting between Region 10 foes, which the Knights won 71-67. Less than a month later, Strong nearly had another double-double performance, contributing 10 points and seven rebounds in the 70-63 victory.

Kenneth Funderbunk is another source of offense for the Knights. A sizeable wing at 6-foot-4-inches tall, he averages just over 10 points per game. His size over CFCC's smaller backcourt helped him notch 21 and 14 points, respectively.
The Sea Devils welcome starting point guard Rakeem Wilson back into the lineup. Wilson missed the past three games after he tore a ligament in his right thumb in CFCC's Feb. 24 win over Denmark Technical College. The New Hanover High School product has been a full participant in this week's practices. "I don't think it's near 100 percent, but it's definitely good enough to play," Mantlo said, noting that the injured thumb is on his non-shooting hand.
 
Wilson and shooting guard Emmanuel Andrews have been consistent all season, as has the Sea Devil frontcourt combinations. But, Mantlo stressed the importance of having a tertiary threat in the backcourt.

"Our biggest key is for somebody to step up in that third role with Rakeem and Emmanuel, whether it be EJ (Williams), Terrance (Hampton) or Tony (Menton)," he said. "If we have a great performance from one of those three in this tournament, I think we win it, I really do."

Williams, sitting within earshot of Mantlo's comments, said he was ready for the challenge. "That's why I was brought here," the Raleigh native said. "I've been battling through injuries all season, but you can't cry about that now when it's win or go home."

As his coach noted, defensive precision will be key. "When we play defense, it's so tough to beat us," Williams said. "Like when we played against Brunswick here, we played horrible, but we played great defense. You need good defense to win a championship."
Throw out the sub .500 record. Shake off regular season lag and take late-year momentum into the playoffs. The postseason provides an opportunity for the Sea Devils to live up to their lofty expectations.
"I thought this was my most talented team," Mantlo said. "I really honestly felt that this was going to be our best season, and it's disappointing that it hasn't been thus far. But, if you win Thursday, Friday (and) Saturday, everybody loves you again.
 
"I believe we are the best team in the conference," he added. "This group has yet to show us what exactly it's capable of."


Region 10 Tournament Schedule -
All games played at Bridges Arena
Thursday

- No. 3 USC Salkehatchie vs. No. 6 Brunswick Community College, 1 p.m.
- No. 2 Clinton Junior College vs. No. 7 USC Sumter, 3 p.m.
- No. 4 Aiken Technical College vs. No. 5 Cape Fear Community College, 5:30 p.m.
- No. 1 Spartanburg Methodist College vs. No. 8 Denmark Technical College, 7:30 p.m.
Friday
- No. 3/6 winner vs. No. 2/7 winner, 5 p.m.
- No. 4/5 winner vs. No. 1/8 winner, 7 p.m.
Saturday
- Championship game, 2:30 p.m.
 

-CFCC-