Charlotte 49ers top Eastern Kentucky to earn College Basketball Invitational title

The Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball team captured its first postseason tournament championship Wednesday, earning a 71-68 win over Eastern Kentucky in the College Basketball Invitational.

The 49ers’ 22nd win matched the most for the program since the 2000-01 season in which Charlotte won a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee.

“Finishing the season on a victory, there are only three teams that can do that, and right now we are one of them,” Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez said. “I am really thankful that the guys are able to enjoy that. It feels good for the seniors and transfers that have come in to help us.”

Aly Khalifa, a redshirt sophomore, has been a catalyst for the 49ers. He dropped in 20 points in Wednesday’s win.

“(The win) feels great,” Khalifa said. “It’s the first postseason championship since I’ve been here. It feels great; it feels unreal and I am just so happy. We were all a little sore. We finished the last game up around 12 o’clock. So, I give a lot of credit to our managers, scout team and coaches.”

Junior guard Brice Williams didn’t have his usual scoring performance, but he came up with one of the biggest plays of the game near the end of the contest, blocking Eastern Kentucky’s Cooper Robb on a 3-point attempt with less than six seconds to play, forcing a rushed last shot by the Colonels.

“It felt good getting that block,” Williams said. “It was big. I didn’t really have that good of a scoring performance tonight. The defensive stop at the end was key. Defense wins championships.”

Williams said Wednesday win will go a long way to giving the 49ers momentum into next season.

“Not only will this give us momentum going into next season because we won the last game this season,” Williams said. “But, this just shows that the culture we have built can last. All the teams that have won (the CBI tournament) have won somewhere else. So, we are just checking boxes.”

Williams had to sit out last year due to an injury, but emerged as the 49ers’ go-to scorer this season. He was named CBI tournament MVP after the win.

“I am happy for Brice,” Sanchez said. “To be named tournament MVP as he journeys and grows and tries to become the best version of himself, is a great stepping stone for him to understand what it takes to be that type of a player. I’m hoping this will springboard him forward.”

The 49ers were in command of the game until the Colonels made a run, like they have done in just about every game during the tournament.

“I am glad that we gave ourselves a cushion so we could endure their run,” Sanchez said. “I knew there was a run coming, I just didn’t know when. “I was hoping it wouldn’t but I knew there was one coming.”

The future seems bright for the 49ers. They have a young core, with several sophomores and juniors that will play key roles next season. Lu’Cye Patterson and Isaiah Folkes are sophomore guards who played big minutes for the 49ers this season.

Folkes hit arguably the biggest shot of the game for Charlotte with a layup with fewer than 20 seconds remaining, giving the 49ers a three-point lead.

“For Isaiah to finish that play off a phenomenal pass against the double team was great,” Sanchez said. “The way that he has played this second half of the season has been — what I think — is key in the success that the program has had. I think this is great for his future.”