In many ways, it’s been a trying and drawn-out decade since the program’s last NCAA appearance before this week. For those involved, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long.
Most inside the program at the time would say it really started from the moment the Seahawks were snubbed from the NIT the previous March, in spite of 19 wins and a decent RPI.
A veteran-laden group led by coach Brad Brownell finished four months and 25 wins later with a first-round NCAA loss at Greensboro Coliseum, an 18-point lead turning into an overtime defeat in what seemed like an instant. An era ended two weeks later when the coach was gone, off to a new job in another mid-major conference because of behind-the-scenes tensions that had simmered for some time.
Looking back, that group represented a high-water mark for UNCW -- and a distinctive fork in its history. Those Seahawks were squarely on the college basketball map thanks to the right mix of talent, blue-collar determination and confidence to dream big. They never imagined those feelings could be so fleeting.
In many ways, it’s been a trying and drawn-out decade since the program’s last NCAA appearance before this week. For those involved, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long.
Brownell guided UNCW to the NCAA Tournament and a last-second loss to Maryland in 2003 before coming up short the next two seasons. Year 4 seemed promising, with a strong returning cast, but the Seahawks were picked fifth preseason in an unusually strong Colonial Athletic Association.
Brad Brownell, coach: Goldsberry and those guys were young players that first year (2003) and just kind of grew with the program. I think we felt like their senior year that those guys had been through the fire enough and were talented enough and experienced enough and we put enough good pieces around them with T.J. Carter and Todd Hendley that we felt like we had a real chance to have a really special year.”
Scott Hamilton, former StarNews beat writer: That was a really good team, man. They really didn’t have any holes. That team could do everything.
Billy Donlon, assistant: Those guys would have been good anywhere, any system, any style of play. They just happened to be in a program where we felt the best teams win with defense. You guard people to win championships, but it won’t necessarily get you a lot of individual attention.
Michael Litos, author of book chronicling 2006 CAA season: You knew with Brad Brownell they were going to be in every game. They defended their butts off. They challenged every single shot. I think between Wilmington and Drexel that was when we started creating the term ‘rock fight.’
Brownell: Guys didn’t care what they needed to do. A guy like John Goldsberry did what he needed to do to win. If he needed to make shots, he would shoot shots. If he didn’t need to shoot, he wouldn’t shoot and T.J. Carter would score 25 points. There were zero egos.
Joe King, 2005 graduate/broadcaster: It wasn’t just go to practice, go to games and then go do your own thing. I know it’s kind of cliché and kind of cheesy, but they were a true family. They all liked each other, and so they played for each other.
Beckham Wyrick, senior forward (shown at right): A big part of the motivation for us (seniors) was this program had experienced a lot of success before we came in as freshmen. We wanted to leave the program in the same state that we found it in.
Vlad Kuljanin, sophomore forward: The seniors were pretty much like assistant coaches. They were so easy to work with and such overall great guys. I thought the whole year was just them being special, I guess.
John Goldsberry, senior guard: Going into the season I don’t even remember us being picked fifth. We had a culture where that stuff didn’t matter. We thought we were better and we tried to prove it every time we stepped on the court.
The season started with three games at the Black Coaches Association Tournament in Wyoming. The Seahawks beat Butler, Wyoming and Northwestern on consecutive days for the title. Some of those good feelings were tempered by a 19-point loss at Colorado three days later.
Wyrick: “I’m sure a lot of the guys would have been more happy if we played in the Maui Invitational or one of the tournaments down in the Bahamas, but anything was better than just playing normal nonconference games. We were excited to be flying across the country.
Goldsberry: I remember it being really cold. We went on one (preseason) trip in my entire career and it was to Wyoming. Nate Miller was my roommate at the time. We got locked out of our hotel room. I think it froze shut or the wind was so bad that it wouldn’t open.
UNCW's Daniel Fountain goes for a loose ball against Colorado at Trask Coliseum Nov. 29, 2006. MATT BORN/STARNEWS
Daniel Fountain, sophomore guard: We took a very old-fashioned bus from the airport to the coliseum. I think that bus only went maybe 40 miles per hour. It was funny. Each team had a scheduled time to practice, but we were like, ‘We’ve got to get going here.’
T.J. Carter, junior guard: I know I had the best steak I’ve ever had in my life out there.
King: That was probably the best trip of my whole tenure at UNCW.
Todd Hendley, sophomore forward: I remember in postgame interviews Wyoming’s coach (Steve McClain) said it’s very rare they got out-toughed in their own gym. We were just better conditioned.
Mitch Laue, senior forward: “I think we won some of those games without us even playing our best. I think a lot of us -- probably Todd and myself – were in foul trouble quite a bit, but I think winning that and beating Butler, Wyoming and Northwestern we knew from that point that we were going to be good. I think it was a little bit of a statement right off the bat saying ‘We’re different this year.’”
Brownell: That was probably a crazy schedule, but I think we got Colorado to agree to come back to our place. So in a lot of ways it wasn’t a good schedule for that year because we had to wait around for three more days out in Colorado. After we won the tournament, we were probably ready to come home.
UNCW continued its strong start, including a loss at the buzzer at Wisconsin. The Seahawks were at 7-2 when they hit a three-game losing streak. An 82-69 defeat at East Carolina on Christmas Eve particularly stung.
Mitch Laue, senior forward: “We had a big meeting that night called by the players. We kind of talked about where we were: ‘What do we want out of this season? Do you we want to go there? Because if we want to get to that tournament, we have to change.’
Marty McGillan, assistant coach: I just remember Todd Hendley and Mitch Laue just being really, really, really visibly upset, angry, almost wanting to fight somebody, punch the wall type attitude. You could just sense it was different. It wasn’t the normal ‘Oh man, we lost.’ It was more ‘We’re better than this. This can’t happen again.’
Fountain: It was something where we all looked each other in the eyes man-to-man and knew what our responsibilities were and how we could bring the most out of one another.
Wyrick: We might have been a little overconfident at that point. It was a good time for us, I think, to get a wakeup call.”
Brownell was (and is) known for his in-your-face style and zeal for preparation. With this group, the result was over-the-top planning and some epic practices.
University of North Carolina Wilmington head coach Brad Brownell (cq) keeps an eye on his players including senior Beckham Wyrick (left) during their practice session Wednesday March 14, 2006.
Carter: The preparation was high-level. We had meetings, walkthroughs, film and it was down to a T. We knew what teams wanted to do. We knew how they liked to attack. And you just had to remember the scouting report.
McGillan: A lot of that, a vast majority of it, is just Brad. He has an unbelievable ability to keep you in the moment, just valuing the process.
Dejan Grkovic, junior forward: I know our staff had a lot of sleepless nights. Our scouting reports – I’m not exaggerating – were books. They were 8.5x11 sheets, 20 to 50 pages at times. There were times when one staple might not be able to handle it. I’m willing to bet we were the most prepared team in the United States.
Fountain: I remember, at Delaware, Mitch Laue had to tell this guy, ‘Hey man, you’re supposed to be over on this side of the block,’ because he knew the play. That’s the god’s honest truth.
Brownell: We were at our best when we were really creating conflict for our opponent. We didn’t want other teams to feel like they were in a pickup game when they played us. That wasn’t our way of playing. It was going to be a competitive fight to beat us. If you were going to beat us, we wanted it to be that way.
Fountain: Whether we were playing in a game or playing in practice we were just really competitive guys. Whether we were playing HORSE or having a little dunk contest after practice, we wanted to really beat one another. That was the common thing we all had.
Brownell: John set the tone every day. A guy like T.J. Carter became the player he became because he was in an environment like that.
Carter (at right): We had a drill called ‘War rebounding.’ The goal really was just to knock your opponent to the floor. Forget the rebounding part. One of the coaches would throw the ball up. It wasn’t even a shot. It was just for the ball to go somewhere. You pretty much had to tackle your teammate to get the ball.
Laue: Every day when you got off the floor you were like ‘Thank God he’s on my team.’ It was full-fledged. We used to call it bone on bone. We were like football players.
Fountain: I remember Taylor Lay broke my nose in practice. And I think John and I really got into it a couple of times.
Grkovic: That goes to show the respect we had for each other. We would be competitive and we would get into fights but it was never a fight where there was a fist thrown. We knew where to draw the line no matter how angry or crazy you might get over a hard foul.
Wyrick: There were times you’d start a practice lackadaisical, and he’d kick us all out of the gym after an hour and a half or something. Then he’d come talk to us in the locker room and say ‘Alright fellas, that’s halftime. We’re going out for another one.’ And we’d go practice for another hour or two.
King: Certain days, they would almost turn Coach B’s anger against him by going extra hard. At the end, he would be laughing. He’d start off mad and then they get after it like that and there’s really nothing for him to get mad about.
McGillan: They made you be a better coach because every day if you came in and you didn’t bring it they were going to expose you. It’s very, very rare that you have a collective group of guys like that.
The CAA had credibility as a mid-major league but hadn’t broken through with an at-large bid. There was a sense this could be the year, but with so much firepower at the top, it was unclear who might have the best chance. UNCW took a three-overtime loss at Hofstra and blew a second-half lead to lose at George Mason but showed remarkable consistency, including a 9-0 mark in CAA play at home. The Seahawks and Patriots ended up tying at the top of the standings at 15-3. The Pride and Old Dominion were right on their tails.
Grkovic: I don’t think our conference had nearly enough respect that year. Looking back, you can kind of appreciate how good it really was.
King: The CAA basically back then was: if you didn’t know the other team’s scouting report like the back of your hand, then there’s a good chance you’re going to get blown out.
Hofstra coach Tom Pecora: It was a great year in the league. I look at the league now, and it’s a little bit watered down compared to what it once was. Those were great battles.
Hamilton: The level of competition in that league was as good as anywhere in the country. I’d put that up against just about anybody. I’m realistic: I’m not saying top to bottom it was as good as the Big East was or the ACC or the Pac-10 or whatever, but you take the top four or five teams out of that conference and they could beat anybody, any given night.
UNCW earned the top seed for the CAA Tournament in Richmond. The Seahawks had put together a decent resume but knew they’d be somewhere on the bubble without a title. They started with wins over No. 9 Delaware and No. 5 Northeastern.
UNCW's Beckham Wyrick shoots over Northeastern's Aaron Davis on Jan. 28, 2006. MATT BORN/STARNEWS
Fountain: You had Hofstra, Northeastern, Old Dominion, George Mason. Anybody was capable of winning that tournament.
Taylor Lay, senior forward (at left): We’d accomplished so much, but we didn’t want to put ourselves in position to be sent to the NIT. I’m pretty sure the attitude from coaching staff to sports information director was leave no doubt.
Brownell: I had so much confidence in our team that year. When we won our first game against Delaware, I just remember thinking ‘Man, we’re really playing well.’ I just liked where our team was. I would’ve been surprised if we didn’t win it.
Wyrick: We got a gift from Northeastern. We ended up not having to play Old Dominion (in the semifinals). I can remember watching that game on TV in the hotel that weekend and being super happy we weren’t going to have to go up against Old Dominion.
Kuljanin: Northeastern had J.J. Barea. He’s, obviously, still in the NBA now 10 years later. I just remember John being all over him the whole game. Not giving him an inch.
Pecora: That UNCW team was just so tough to prepare for. What they did, I thought, better than anybody else in the league was their ability to execute and how efficient they were. There were very few wasted trips.
Laue: That was a really good Hofstra team. People ask me about it all the time. I think we should’ve had three teams in the (NCAA) Tournament that year.
Pecora: I really thought it was a seeding game.
McGillan: Hofstra made a little bit of a run late, threw a zone at us. We struggled a little bit.
Goldsberry: It’s not like we relaxed, but when you get down by that much from the other team’s perspective you have nothing to lose.
Pecora: Then I called a play we used to call ‘Carolina.’ I shouldn’t have called a play. I just should’ve let them keep playing. I remember to this day, Antoine Agudio threw it away. And they went on a run and that really gave them the separation needed.
UNCW's T.J. Carter celebrates the Seahawks victory over Hofstra at the 2006 CAA Championship on March 6. 2006. The Seahawks defeated the Pride, 78-67. UNCW/Jamie Moncrief
McGillan: The first time Brad watched the kid work out on his own, he saw him shooting. He said, ‘Man, do you see that kid shooting? I can’t fix that. That damn shot? He can’t shoot the ball like that.’ About 1,900 points later he turned out to be pretty good.
Lay: We played as a unit pretty much all the time, but there were some instances that we just had to get the ball to T.J. and just let him do what he does.
Carter: I didn’t play well the first half at all. At all. The second half I started to play better, but I just felt like I had to be aggressive. There was one particular shot I think on a ball rotation. I hit a big 3 from the wing that kind of gave us a little bit of a cushion, but that was a tough moment for the team.
Hendley: When it came time to win games, T.J. could take a team offensively and put it on his back and will his way to the basket. Just hitting big shots. Getting to the line. That was something that he was better at than anybody I played with, even professionally.
Grkovic: T.J. really took over that game. Seeing a guy do that in a tough situation and finally put himself on the map in that conference was something that was special. When it happens to good people, you can’t help but be beyond proud.
Goldsberry: More than anything, it was just fun celebrating with the guys. We put so much work into it and spent so much time dedicated to winning basketball games. The hard work paid off.
Grkovic: You finally get what you’ve been working for your entire life. Having the team there, having that joy of looking at each other’s faces with the joy that we accomplished what we wanted to was something special.
Fountain: You’re so used to seeing all the students rush the court after a championship. Once you actually are in that environment, you really can’t believe it. I remember someone almost ran over my mom, but then she came down on the court too and everybody was celebrating.
King: I was doing my best to get in the championship picture, but I got kicked out of that. It was just a ball, man.
Brownell: After we won, you celebrate out in the arena. You cut down the nets. You run around hugging all your fans and students and family and players. Then we came back into our locker room and there was a bunch of champagne. I can’t say that we did anything with it. I’m not sure that would’ve been appropriate. At the same time, it was just fun and unbelievably classy of Tom Pecora.
McGillan: We come in and there’s a sign on there ‘Great job. Congrats. Good luck in the NCAAs, Hofstra basketball.’
Pecora: I had some buddies who made the trip down with us. They had it on the side. They said ‘Well, we ain’t going to drink it.’ So I went over with a couple players and we delivered it.
Carter: Right out of the Coliseum, we go over to the hotel. It was like another arena full of people wearing teal. That was special, not only because we won but it was kind of a completion thing. We got that part done. Then we shared it with everybody that had been with us from Day One.
The good news: UNCW got a No. 9 seed and the chance to stay close to home playing at Greensboro Coliseum. The bad news: It was matched up with George Washington, which was 26-2 and spent most of the season ranked nationally. The Colonials were dropped down because of uncertainty around if injured star Pops Mensah-Bonsu would play (he did) and a quick exit in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The winner was almost certainly going to play top-seeded Duke.
Brownell: They had an outstanding season. I thought they had a better year than where they ended up being seeded. So it was going to be a tough matchup.
Kuljanin: We were obviously all hyped up. We didn’t care who we were going to play. We were just riding high. Even if we played Duke the first round, it wouldn’t really have mattered to us.
Brian Mull, former StarNews beat writer: I remember going to practice the next day and they had already figured out exactly the ways they were going to beat that press and what they were going to do once they beat it and how they were going to attack it, which did translate to the game at least for a very long time. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this guy was probably up all night devising this game plan with his assistants and they’ve got it.’
Grkovic: I still remember this like it happened yesterday. We were all lined up literally like an army waiting to get on the court. Coach Kryzewski was walking by us and just stopped right in the middle. We obviously all stopped when he stopped. He just said, ‘You know what guys: I have a lot of respect for your program and this team. You remind me of a team I once coached. I know you guys are a very talented team.’
Wyrick: Just a really class move by him.
UNCW 's Mitch Laue leaps over a table of radio broadcasters and their wrecked equipment after tumbling off of the court against George Washington at the Greensboro Coliseum on March 16, 2006. Paul Stephen/STARNEWS
King: That’s the moment of the game for me. He’s upside down, feet hanging out of the air. That’s UNCW basketball to a T, back then.
Carter: We had to be a tough team, a gritty team, how we had been all season. And then we go on this stretch. Now things look great for us.
Laue: It was not just one person. It seemed like everyone was knocking in every shot. I think we were sharing the ball and a lot of the shots we were taking were open.
Lay: There were some plays that we made that you couldn’t explain. How did we see this trap coming? It was pretty crazy.
Mike Vaccaro, UNCW broadcaster: Halfway through that second half, I was just getting excited to call a game against Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Mull: They responded to it immediately. It wasn’t anything the coaches did. Asking Hobbs about that after the game, he said, ‘That’s what you hope and strive for as a coach. That the team gets to the point where it kind of leads itself, polices itself.’ He had that with a veteran group that had had a lot of success.”
Goldsberry: For the majority of the game, we handled their press pretty well. Then for whatever reason, we didn’t.
Laue: They did exactly what we had prepared for. They started trapping. I know I was definitely part of it, making some mental mistakes.
Lay: It was like somebody put the alcohol under their nose and they woke up.
Kuljanin: It happened so fast. A couple of 3’s, a couple of fastbreaks. We missed a couple shots. There was really no time for us to make sense of changes or whatever.
Fountain: Definitely would like to have those few minutes back
McGillan: I just remember the groans in the stands. ‘Oh, you missed another one. Now they scored.’ I almost think if you were in a little bit more of a neutral environment I don’t know if that would have affected us as much. I think kids started pressing and really feeling the magnitude of the moment.
UNCW head coach Brad Brownell tries to rally his team in the closing minutes against George Washington in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Paul Stephen/STARNEWS
Brownell: We were probably a little surprised we got up as much as we did, and then if you’re not careful you’re playing not to lose. That’s a little bit of what happened to us. That’s probably my fault in some ways that we didn’t find a way to win that game.
Garrity: I can remember sitting on the bench and just watching the game. I’m keeping track of some different stats and all the sudden I just become a fan. Watching it go back and forth and big shot after big shot, that was really memorable.
Mull: We were on a tight deadline, so I’m trying to write the gamer as I went along. I just kept erasing ledes and changing stuff.
Donlon: I’m sure none of us feel good about it, but if you go into the game and said you’d be up by 2 with George Washington having the last possession, would you take it? I think we all would take it however you got there.
Carter: Not one part of my body touched his. His view maybe it looked like a foul. If it was a foul, I would own up to it. That was tough.
Kuljanin: The overtime was a chance to win it, but I think we were all demoralized at that point. It’s easy to talk about it right now, but at the moment, it just felt completely different.
Goldsberry: You’re kind of back on your heels at that point. The tide has turned. It’s a totally different feel, to be honest with you. You’re a little bit more tight. Obviously the confidence and momentum that you had is out the window. Now you’re trying to survive and advance. You can’t play like that and win basketball games.
Goldsberry: I was trying to make a play. That’s all you want to do. I remember it every single time I think about the game.
Wyrick: I had the shot there. Just missed it.
Brownell: That’s one of my haunting losses as a coach. The Maryland loss my first year as a head coach, I thought we did everything pretty much right and (Drew Nicholas) kind of threw in a lucky shot to beat us. There’s not much you can do in that scenario. In the George Washington game, we didn’t do all the things we needed to do.
UNCW's John Goldsberry (left) and Todd Hendley leave the court after the Seahawks' loss to George Washington. Paul Stephen/STARNEWS
Laue: Time kind of just stops for a bit. Obviously before the game you know this could be your last, but mentally you’re so prepared for the game that that fact doesn’t hit until the buzzer.
Goldsberry: I was a little more emotional than I probably am. I remember walking off the court and trying to fight back some tears. I walked by coach K and he patted me on the shoulder. It was tough being in the locker room for the last time with those coaches and those players.
Wyrick: Obviously, it would be better if we beat Maryland and made a Sweet 16 run (in 2003) or we beat George Washington and Duke our senior year, but I’m happy that we made it all. I’m happy that I have those memories because a lot of guys don’t.
Carter: That was a special experience to be in the tournament, but I think with our team just being in the tournament wasn’t enough. I think we had the team to advance. We didn’t. And that hurt.
McGillan: You’re just numb to the way it’s ended. Not so much how you lost but that it’s over. The finality of it, I think, is the hardest part.
Hendley (at right): I don’t remember exactly what (Brownell) said, but I do remember him telling us to make sure you pick your heads up and when you walk out of this locker room you walk out with them held high because you have everything to be proud of and nothing at all to be ashamed about.
Hendley: I’ve never gone back and watched it. It’s just too hard. As good of a game as it was, it’s a little too hard to put that one in the DVD player and kind of relive it.
Brownell: I probably watched it one time and that was many, many, many days after the game because I was so pained by that loss and hurt so much for my players. Those guys were good. They had a great year. We had a good enough team to win a couple games and maybe be a Sweet 16 team that year.
Kuljanin: Extremely frustrating. That’s all I can say about that.
Hendley: To say that I was 100 percent stoked for them after every win, I can’t honestly say that. It was just a mixed bag of feelings there. We wished that could have been us. And then on the flip side you’re happy for what it does for them and for their school and for the conference.
Carter: It was amazing. I didn’t wish it wasn’t them. I didn’t have any ill will towards them. They represented the conference well. It was really special to watch it happen.
Two weeks later, UNCW was searching for a coach. The relationship between Brownell and athletic director Mike Capaccio had fizzled, crushing any chances for a contract extension. The former assistant under Jerry Wainwright bolted for Wright State after four seasons, 83 wins and two NCAA appearances.
Hamilton: That lingered all year. He should’ve gotten an extension when they got off the plane from Wyoming and Colorado.
McGillan: You just knew that was the deal. It was a bad, bad scene at the end, but it was never a distraction. He was like, ‘Fellas, we’re hired by UNC-Wilmington. We’re going to coach UNC-Wilmington and we’re going to coach the hell out of these kids. Whatever happens in the end we’ll deal with it when that happens.’ That’s just the way he was.
Litos: Covering the team and being close to the team and close to the league you knew there were problems there. You didn’t discuss it on an everyday basis and it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a lot more fun to pay attention to a winning basketball team than it is the differences between an AD and a coach, but it was no secret and therefore when it actually occurred it was no surprise.
Mull: It was the elephant in the room. We found out later the extent to which communications had chilled between Cappacio and Brownell.
Donlon: Behind the scenes, we knew as a coaching staff we were under the gun so to speak. The way coach handled it, first class all the way. I don’t think the players had great knowledge or any knowledge at all. It was never discussed. The way Brad handled it, I don’t know if there’s ever been a better coaching job.
Fountain: We were kept out of it. We really didn’t know what was going on until it happened. It was obviously something between Brownell and the athletic department.
Carter: I don’t know how the other guys felt, but I would say either I was completely oblivious to what was going on around me or they did a great job of masking anything that was going on behind the scenes about him possible leaving.
Brownell: Through coach Wainwright’s and my time there, we really built a brand. UNCW basketball really became a player in the national college basketball scene a little bit. We were doing some unbelievably good things. We had sellout crowds to just about every home game and unbelievable interest in terms of people traveling to watch us. Sometimes those things get taken for granted and people don’t understand how hard it is to do all that and to do it consistently like we did. It’s really remarkable.
Wyrick: I think it was probably hard for a lot of people to understand because that’s not normally the way things work. Normally you make an NCAA Tournament, have a 25-win season and get a good contract extension or something.
Brownell: It’s just unfortunate, obviously a painful time in my life. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was telling those players.
Hendley: I remember that meeting was definitely a shock. I think there’s rumors and whispers after any season about a ton of stuff, but hearing that for the first time from him that was a shock for all of us.
Goldsberry: I don’t think he wanted to leave, to be honest with you. It wasn’t like he was going to Clemson from UNC-Wilmington. No disrespect to Wright State.
Carter: I definitely wasn’t angry. I just felt like he wouldn’t have left that situation unless he felt like it was the best thing for him and his family. From the basketball side of it, it was more like, ‘Well what’s going to happen next?’
Kuljanin: It was just a lot of tough years. What Coach Keatts is doing right now is absolutely incredible. I follow all the games. My family does, too. I’m extremely proud the way the program is moving forward.
Hendley: It’s been really cool to see them get back to where we know it can be and should be.
Carter: That’s awesome, man. I hope Trask is rocking again like it used to.
Goldsberry: You’ve got to be excited about where the program is now. Coach Keatts has done an unbelievable job. Those guys play hard.
Reporter Eric Detweiler can be reached at 343-2261 or Eric.Detweiler@StarNewsOnline.com.