The rise of UNC Wilmington star Chris Flemmings, an unrecruited walk-on and Division II transfer

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

BALTIMORE — The turnaround that UNC Wilmington has undergone in the two-year tenure of head coach Kevin Keatts is as drastic and as unpredictable as any coaching hire in recent memory. The former Louisville assistant, who, five years ago, was still coaching in the high school ranks, took one of the nation’s worst teams, overhauled the roster and, in a matter of months, orchestrated his first CAA regular season title.

That earned him a Conference Coach of the Year award, just like his second straight regular season title this season did. He was already one of the hotshot, young head coaches on the radar of power conference before Monday night’s 79-73 overtime win over Hofstra sent the Seahawks to their first NCAA tournament since 2006.

But the most fascinating part of their story is Chris Flemmings, the team’s leading scorer and best player: A 6-foot-5 wing that averages 16.0 points and 5.9 boards, has the ability to score at all three levels offensively and that was tasked on Monday with slowing down Hofstra’s best player, Flemmings was never recruited to UNC Wilmington.

By anyone.

On any staff.

“He recruited us,” assistant coach Takayo Siddle said.

And they are so damn glad that he did.


(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Buzz Peterson was fired four days after UNCW lost in the opening round of the 2014 CAA tournament, and it would be 16 days before the Seahawks tapped into the Rick Pitino coaching tree to hire Keatts as his replacement. During those 16 days, the Seahawk program was flapping in the breeze.

Assistant Kevin Easley, the only staff member that was retained from the Peterson regime, had just finished watching the team that may no longer be his workout when he noticed her.

“She was walking in the gym, and just kind of looking around,” Easley said. “‘Can I help you?'”

That was the first time that anyone at UNCW had met Tracy Flemmings, Chris’ mother

“My son is interested in transferring here.”

Easley, naturally, was skeptical. This isn’t an unusual thing to have happen, and when he asked for more information about her son, Tracy was as modest as she could be.

“Is he a good player?” Easley asked her.

“Yeah, he’s pretty good.”

So coach and mom exchanged contact information and Easley pushed the encounter to the back of his mind. The program didn’t even have a head coach at the time. Who was going to decide whether or not they could offer this kid a spot as a walk-on, let alone a scholarship? Who was going to make the decision on whether the kid was good enough? Hell, Easley didn’t even know for sure if he was still going to be with the program once a new head coach was hired.

Fast forward to a staff meeting later that spring. Keatts tells his assistants that he needs players. Bodies. The style that UNCW plays isn’t all that dissimilar from Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ defense or the new and improved Press Virginia under Bob Huggins’. Keatts wanted his guys to pressure for 40 minutes, to be in the kind of shape that will wear down an opponents’ legs, and to do that, he needed a roster that was deep; not just for games, but for practice as well. A ten man team using that system will get worn down pretty quickly when they don’t have the subs to play 5-on-5 in practice.

“I told him I have a guy that will come and play and pay his own way and he might be pretty good,” Easley said.

“Usually, when you get an inquiry about a kid, he can’t play,” Keatts said.

“I go to the email [Tracy Flemmings sent], and I started researching,” Easley said, “and he’s pretty good. He’s averaging like 20 points a game, nine rebounds, Player of the Year in the conference, honorable mention all-american.”

Turns out, Flemmings was more than just “pretty good”. He was one of the best players in Division II basketball, a long and athletic wing that had the tools and the skill set to fit in well with what Keatts wanted his team to do.

“Once he got his release, we started checking on him,” Keatts said. “We pulled some tape on him, through Synergy and all that, and I thought he could be a good basketball player for us. We decided to bring him on an unofficial visit”

“He came the next day,” Easley said, “he committed to coming and the rest is history.”

The staff still didn’t quite know what they had on their hands when Flemmings showed up, but it didn’t take them long at all to figure it out.


“Oh my god.”

That was Craig Ponder’s reaction the first time that he saw Flemmings play. Ponder is another great story on this UNCW team. A redshirt senior guard, he was on the roster for three straight losing seasons before Keatts showed up. But he also played for Keatts at Hargrave Military Academy in high school, so he knew what the new coach would be looking for.

“The first day he walked in the door and we played pickup with him, I knew that guy could play [in this system],” Ponder said after scoring 20 points in the title game. “He was arguably the best player on the floor from the time he stepped on the court. Nobody’s surprised by his success.”

“We were like, ‘Ok. He’s good,'” Easley said with a laugh. “We didn’t realize how good he’d be.”

No one did.

In high school, Flemmings weighed 150 pounds soaking wet. He didn’t have the strength to handle Division I competition, the recruiters and scouts believed. He needed to improve his handle, his jumper. A typical late-bloomer.

“I didn’t really get looked at coming out of high school,” Chris said. So he ended up at Barton, but after winning Player of the Year in his conference as a sophomore, he decided there was a new challenge for him ahead.

“We were just looking for a bigger environment from a school perspective,” Tracy said. “Academics perspective. It just worked out that UNCW was the school.”

“He believed in himself,” Tracy added, knowing that this could end up meaning that the family would be paying three more years of tuition. Flemmings has paid his own way at UNCW the last two years. “We just supported him as parents, and we said go for it. Try and walk-on.”

Flemmings would have to sit out for a year as a transfer, but that year may have been a blessing in disguise.

“He was a good player, we had to have him adjust to Division I basketball,” Keatts said. “He needed to add weight, he couldn’t handle the basketball.”

Working on his handle was the easy part. Adding weight, on the other hand, wasn’t.

“The kid’s metabolism is unbelievable,” Keatts said. “He eats everything you could imagine.” He has managed to added 20 pounds to get up to 175, a result, his mom says, of “lots of oreos.”

The result?

“He’s the best player in the conference,” Ponder said. “He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever played [with]. Every day he shows up to work, every game he shows up to play.”

“I haven’t had a better teammate. Ever.”

Keatts brings out the best in everyone on this roster. That’s the reason he’s widely considered one of the rising stars in the coaching business. That’s certainly no different with Flemmings, but it’s important to remember that Keatts wouldn’t have the chance to coach this kid if Tracy Flemmings hadn’t walked into the UNCW gym that day.

“I give him mom all the credit,” Keatts said with the laugh and smile of a coach that knows he can only be at his best when he’s lucky and good.

UConn puts Final Four beatdown on Miami 72-59

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HOUSTON (AP) Nobody was guarding UConn’s best player. So Adama Sanogo spun the ball to get his fingers just right, set his feet behind the 3-point line and splashed in the shot. Then, less than a minute later, he did it again.

It was as much basketball clinic as highlight video – and all of it perfectly fitting for the Huskies, who are methodically steamrolling through a March Madness bracket that has been a free-for-all everywhere else.

UConn doled out another drama-free beatdown Saturday, getting 21 points and 10 rebounds from Sanogo to dispatch Miami 72-59 and move one win from the school’s fifth national title.

“There’s a lot of teams that want to play Monday,” Sanogo said. “It means a lot to us.”

Jordan Hawkins overcame his stomach bug and scored 13 for the Huskies, who came into this most unexpected Final Four as the only team with any experience on college basketball’s final weekend and with the best seeding of the four teams in Houston – at No. 4.

Against fifth-seeded Miami, they were the best team on the court from beginning to end. Starting with three straight 3s – one jumper from Hawkins and two of those set shots from Sanogo – UConn took a quick 9-0 lead and never trailed.

“This is something that I worked on all summer, especially shooting,” Sanogo said.

On Monday in the title game, the Huskies will face San Diego State, which became the first team to hit a buzzer-beater while trailing in a Final Four game for a 72-71 victory over Florida Atlantic. UConn was an early 7 1/2-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

“They’re one of the best teams in the country,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said of the Aztecs. “And I think it’s fitting that both of us kind of earned our way into this title game.”

But while the early game was an all-timer, the nightcap was simply more of the same from the Huskies (30-8).

The 13-point win was UConn’s closest since the brackets came out. The Huskies are the sixth team since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to reach the title game with five straight double-digit victories. It’s an impressive list of behemoths with a knack for closing: Four of the first five went on to win the championship.

Some thought Miami (29-8), with the nation’s fifth-ranked offense and four players who have scored 20 points at least three times this season, might be the team to slow this Huskies juggernaut. Not to be.

Isaiah Wong led the ’Canes with 15 points on 4-for-10 shooting. Harassed constantly by Sanogo, 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan and the rest of Connecticut’s long-armed, rangy perimeter players, Miami, which came in with the nation’s fifth-best offense, shot 25% in the first half and 33.3% for the game.

“Obviously what we tried to do not only didn’t work, I couldn’t even recognize it,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “Offensively we were out of sync, but defensively we were too.”

Not that UConn was all boring. The Huskies enjoyed their own sort of buzzer-beater in the form of a 3 from Alex Karaban that sent the Huskies jogging into the locker room with a 13-point lead at halftime.

They built it to 20 before the first TV timeout of the second half. By then, Jim Nantz, calling his last Final Four, could start saving his voice for Monday.

Miami did get it under double digits a few times, but this never got interesting.

Not helping: Hurricanes guard Nijel Pack missed about five minutes after managers had trouble locating a substitute for a busted shoe. Pack finished with eight points, and Jordan Miller, who hit all 20 shots he took from the floor and the line in Miami’s Elite Eight win, went 4 for 10 for 11 points. Only one Miami player made more than half his shots.

“I’m a defensive guy first and foremost,” Hurley said. “I just love the way we guarded them. They’re one of the best offenses in the country, and we really disrupted them.”

UConn had five blocks, including two from Sanogo, and 19 assists, led by eight from Tristen Newton – both signs of the sort of all-around effort the Huskies have been putting in since the start of February, when they began the bounce back from a six-loss-in-eight-games stretch that halted their momentum.

That cold stretch is a big reason they were seeded only fourth for March. Now, it’s April and the number UConn is thinking about is “5” – as in, a fifth title that will come if it can keep this up for one more game.

“Maybe it was a little bit delusional,” Huskies guard Andre Jackson Jr. said, “but we always knew we were the best team in our mind.”

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Dream season ends for FAU in 72-71 Final Four loss to Aztecs

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HOUSTON (AP) FAU’s debut at the Final Four ended in the most excruciating manner imaginable.

The Owls led for the last 27 minutes, 25 seconds of Saturday night’s game against San Diego State, only to watch their dream of a title become a nightmare when Lamont Butler’s jumper went through the net at the buzzer to give the Aztecs a 72-71 victory.

The Owls made school history by getting here, only to walk off the court in shock as the Aztecs bounced around in celebration.

“I was in shock when the buzzer went off,” said FAU’s Nick Boyd.

Florida Atlantic’s players smiled and many danced on the bench during a second half in which it appeared they’d move within one win of a title no one could have seen coming.

Instead they ended up with a loss that nobody will ever forget.

Butler’s shot goes into the March Madness annals, alongside Jalen Suggs’ long-range buzzer-beater for Gonzaga two years ago in the national semifinal, and even something that happened on this very floor the last time the Final Four was Houston in 2016: Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater to win the title for Villanova.

Which means FAU will be remembered alongside UCLA and North Carolina as victims of some of the most crushing last-second losses this tournament has seen.

For so long, it didn’t look like it would go that way.

Jalen Gaffney made a 3-pointer to put the Owls ahead 26-24 with 7:25 left in the first half. FAU didn’t trail again until the buzzer.

The Owls were up by 9 with 11 minutes to go after testing San Diego State’s vaunted defense like no one had in this tournament before the Aztecs started chipping away at the lead.

The Aztecs got within 2 for the first time with about 10 minutes to go and tied it with 4 1/2 minutes left.

Giancarlo Rosado put the Owls back on top with a fadeaway jumper seconds later, but they didn’t make another field goal until Alijah Martin’s layup made it 71-68 with 45 seconds left.

Jaedon LeDee hit a jumper to cut FAU’s lead to 1 with 36 seconds left.

Johnell Davis missed a layup with nine seconds left that would have padded the lead.

Nathan Mensah grabbed a rebound before Butler’s jumper swished through the net at the buzzer to end this Cinderella’s dream season.

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Clark, Iowa end perfect South Carolina season in Final Four

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS – Caitlin Clark overwhelmed the reigning champions with another sensational game, scoring 41 points to help Iowa spoil South Carolina’s perfect season with a 77-73 victory on Friday night in the Final Four.

The spectacular junior guard set a record for the highest-scoring semifinal game and became the first women’s player to post back-to-back 40-point games in the NCAA Tournament. She now has the Hawkeyes in a spot they’ve never been in before – one victory away from a national championship.

They’ll have to beat another SEC team to do that as Iowa (31-6) will face LSU in the title game on Sunday afternoon. The Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the other national semifinal.

It’s the Tigers’ first appearance in the title game as Kim Mulkey became the second coach to take two different teams to the championship game.

Thanks to the spectacular play of Clark and the historic year by South Carolina, this was one of the most talked about and highly anticipated matchups in women’s Final Four history,

The game lived up to the hype surrounding it- the best player vs. the best team – much to the delight of the sellout crowd of over 19,000 fans.

Coach Dawn Staley and South Carolina (36-1) had won 42 in a row, including last year’s championship game.

This was Iowa’s first appearance in the Final Four in 30 years. The last time the Hawkeyes advanced this far was 1993 and C. Vivian Stringer was the coach of that team that lost to Ohio State in overtime.

Clark wowed the crowd that included Harper Stribe, a young fan of the team who has been battling cancer. She was featured in a surprise video that informed the Hawkeyes’ star that she was the AP Player of the Year.

Trailing 59-55 entering the fourth quarter, South Carolina scored the first five points to take the lead. Clark answered right back with two deep 3-pointers and an assist to Monika Czinano to give the Hawkeyes a 67-62 lead.

South Carolina got within 69-68 on Raven Johnson’s 3-pointer before Clark got a steal for a layup with 3:32 left. Neither team scored again until star Aliyah Boston was fouled with 1:37 left. She made the second of two free throws.

Clark then scored another layup on the other end out of a timeout to make it a four-point game. After a layup by Zia Cooke made it a two-point game with 58 seconds left, the Hawkeyes ran the clock down with McKenna Warnock grabbing a huge offensive rebound off a Clark miss with 18 seconds remaining.

Clark hit two free throws after South Carolina fouled her with 13.5 seconds left. They were her 38th and 39th point, moving her past Nneka Ogwumike for the most points scored in a Final Four semifinal game.

After a putback by Johnson with 9.9 seconds left got the Gamecocks within 75-73, Clark sealed the game with two more free throws.

As the final seconds went off the clock Clark threw the ball high in the air and galloped around the court.

The loss ended a spectacular season for the defending champion Gamecocks, who were trying to become the 10th team to go through a season unbeaten.

Cooke led the Gamecocks with 24 points. Slowed by foul trouble, Boston had just eight points and 10 rebounds as the Hawkeyes packed the paint, daring South Carolina to shoot from the outside.

The Gamecocks finished 4-for-20 from behind the 3-point line and couldn’t take advantage of their 49-25 advantage on the boards that included 26 offensive rebounds.

Mulkey, LSU women rally in Final Four, reach first title game

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS – Kim Mulkey is back in another national championship game, this time taking the flagship university from her home state there for the first time.

It took LSU only two seasons to get there with the feisty and flamboyantly dressed coach, and a big comeback in the national semifinal game that was quite an undercard Friday night.

Alexis Morris scored 27 points and had two of her misses in the fourth quarter turned into putback baskets by Angel Reese in a big run as LSU rallied to beat top-seeded Virginia Tech 79-72 in the first semifinal game.

“I’m never satisfied. I’m super-excited that we won, but I’m hungry,” said Morris, who jumped on a courtside table and fired up LSU fans after the game. “Like, I’m greedy. I want to win it all so I can complete the story.”

Reese finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds for LSU (33-2), which will play in the national title game Sunday against the winner of the highly anticipated matchup between Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina or Iowa in the other semifinal.

“It’s like a dream. It still hasn’t hit me that I’m at the Final Four,” said Reese, the transfer from Maryland who carries the nickname, ”Bayou Barbie.” “I’m just not even believing this right now. It’s crazy how much my life has changed in one year.”

Mulkey – in a carnation pink top this time – won three national titles in four Final Four appearances over her 21 seasons at Baylor. She is only the second coach to take two different teams to the national championship game. The other is C. Vivian Stringer, who did it with Cheyney in the inaugural 1982 women’s tournament and Rutgers in 2007.

“I came home for lots of reasons,” Mulkey said. “One, to some day hang a championship banner in the PMAC (Pete Maravich Assembly Center). Never, ever do you think you’re going to do something like this in two years.”

LSU made five national semifinal games in a row from 2004-08 – the only times the Tigers had made it this far. They lost each of those years.

The Tigers had to dig deep for this one, with neither team backing down.

Trailing 59-50 after three quarters, LSU went ahead with a 15-0 run over a five-minute span. The Tigers led for the first time since late in the first half when Falu’jae Johnson had a steal and drove for a layup to make it 64-62.

Reese had six points in that game-turning spurt, including a basket after Morris’ attempted 3-pointer clanked off the front rim. Reese had a second-effort follow of her own miss after rebounding another shot by Morris.

Elizabeth Kitley, the 6-foot-6 senior, had 18 points and 12 rebounds for Virginia Tech (31-5), the Atlantic Coast Conference champion that was in the Final Four for the first time. Georgia Amoore and Kayana Traylor each had 17 points, while Cayla King had 14.

Amoore set a record for the most 3-pointers in a single NCAA Tournament with 24, though she had a tough night shooting – 4 of 17 overall, including 4 of 15 from beyond the arc. She passed Kia Nurse’s record 22 set in the 2017 tourney for UConn, which lost in the national semifinals on the same court. Arizona’s Aari McDonald had 22 in six NCAA tourney games two years ago.

The big run for LSU came right after Amoore made her last 3-pointer with 7:52 left for a 62-57 lead. The Hokies didn’t make another basket until King’s 3 with 1:19 left.

“I think we had a few crucial turnovers as well as missed box-outs where they scored on second-chance opportunities,” Traylor said. “I think that’s just what it came down to really.”

Morris had opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer for LSU, then had a driving layup before Reese had a layup after a steal by Johnson. That quick 7-0 run prompted a timeout by Hokies coach Kenny Brooks.

“They hit a couple of shots, gave them a little bit of momentum. They hit a 3 right off the bat … kind of changed the momentum,” Brooks said. “They were aggressive in the passing lanes. But they also were a little bit more aggressive down low.”

Virginia Tech had ended the first half with its own 11-0 run to lead for the first time, at 34-32 on Traylor’s driving layup with 53 seconds left.

But it was the Tigers who led for 17:55 of the first half with the Hokies getting off to a slow start shooting – they missed eight of their first nine shots – that an LSU cheerleader had an assist even before they officially had a shot.

King was charged with a turnover on a ball that hit the rim and bounced over the top of the backboard and got stuck there. With encouragement from officials and others at that end, a male cheerleader lifted up a female cheerleader, who knocked the ball down.

Gradey Dick to leave Kansas for NBA draft after one season

Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas sharpshooter Gradey Dick is entering the NBA draft after one season with the Jayhawks.

The 6-foot-8 guard announced his decision in a social media post Friday.

Dick started all 36 games for the Jayhawks and averaged 14.1 points while shooting better than 40% from 3-point range. He made 83 3-pointers, a program record for a freshman.

Kansas lost to Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with Dick scoring just seven points in his finale.