Charlotte faces UMass on Sunday for the Myrtle Beach Invitational championship

CONWAY, S.C. (Nov. 19, 2022) – UMass and Charlotte did plenty of celebrating in Friday’s second round of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Noah Fernandes sank a last-second 3-pointer to give the Minutemen a 71-69 victory over Murray State, and one game later Igor Milicic made a last-second block to preserve a 68-65 win for the 49ers over Tulsa.

But those thrilling moments still won’t compare to the party that will take place when UMass (3-1) takes on Charlotte (4-0) at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Because the winner of that game will be Myrtle Beach Invitational tournament champions.

“The journey that we’ve embarked on in trying to elevate this program, playing for championships is what it’s all about,” Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez said. “And to have an opportunity to do that early in the season is huge for us.

“Nobody gifted us this. We’ve earned this opportunity. That’s the one thing that I want our players to understand.”

UMass coach Frank Martin agreed, though he cautioned that his team cannot be satisfied with simply getting to this point.

“When you make it to a championship game, that means there’s still work to do,” Martin said. “Our guys are really happy, and I’m happy for them. They deserve this moment. They’ve earned something that’s not easy to do, which is get to a championship game.

“But now we have to disengage from (Friday’s) game. The same way we disengage from losing a game, we have to disengage from winning. And the mindset goes right away to the preparation and the importance of being mature.”

Fernandes has led the way for UMass in this tournament, averaging 18 points and 3.5 assists through the first two games. Matt Cross has been a beast on the boards for the Minutemen, hauling in a total of 22 rebounds, including a 15-point, 14-rebound performance in the semifinal win over Murray State.

Meanwhile, Egyptian native Aly Khalifa has been a triple threat for Charlotte. The 6-foot-11 forward has averaged 12 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game in the tournament.

Those players are among the contenders for the John T. Rhodes Most Valuable Player Award. Rhodes, who served as mayor of Myrtle Beach for 12 years, was known as the “Father of Sports Tourism” for the coastal resort city in honor of his efforts to bring basketball tournaments and other sports events to the area.

In Sunday’s other final-round games, Murray State will meet Tulsa at 10:30 a.m. for third place, Texas A&M will face Loyola-Chicago at 4:30 p.m. in the seventh-place game, and Boise State will clash with Colorado at 7 p.m. for fifth place.

But only one team will hoist the championship trophy, a special moment that is rare for all collegiate athletes.

“It’s hard to win a game, and it’s really hard to win a championship of any kind,” Martin said. “And we get that opportunity on Sunday.”

Sanchez echoed those thoughts. “The message for us is to be grateful for this, to embrace this and really enjoy what we have,” he said. “This tournament is amazing. It’s run so well. We’re very thankful to be here, and unbelievably grateful to have the opportunity to play for a championship.”

The UMass versus Charlotte series is tied 6-6 with the 49ers winning two of the three games played at neutral sites.