Charlotte coach Mark Price knows that, for now, he’s the public face of the 49ers men’s basketball program.
But it was Price’s players that were in the spotlight – and enjoying their moment front and center – during the annual 49ers Basketball Madness program at Halton Arena.
Thursday night’s Basketball Madness served to introduce the players from both the men’s and women’s basketball teams to Charlotte’s student body, faculty, alumni and fans.
“It’s a first for me,” said Price, who was hired as the 49ers men’s coach in late March. “We’ve got so many new faces on the team, it’s an exciting time to introduce me and introduce the players to the student body here.
“They’ve heard about all the changes that have taken place; this is their first chance to put some names to the faces.”
While the 49ers Basketball Madness has gone on for more than a decade, this year’s event – which drew approximately 700 people, mostly students – aimed to revitalize interest in both the men’s and women’s programs, which have gone through some tough times the past few years.
Price, a former NBA All-Star player and assistant coach at both the pro and college level, was brought on to reinvigorate a Charlotte program that had struggled in recent years under former coach Alan Major.
As for the women’s program, coached by Cara Consuegra, the 49ers have had back-to-back 15-win seasons after going 26-6 and advancing to the third round of the Women’s NIT in 2013.
“It’s obviously real important to come out and get the students excited,” said Consuegra, now in her fifth season at Charlotte. “That’s what Madness is about – our student-athletes spending time with the student body, and getting them excited about both teams.
“As a coach, you’re proud to see your players go out on that stage and get introduced, and give them their moment to shine.”
It’s also a break of sorts for the players, who have gone through daily practices the past three weeks.
“We’ve been practicing hard all week,” said 49ers guard Braxton Ogbueze, the team’s top returning scorer. “To have a day where it’s just fun and games, get to see our personalities, it’s a good day to just relax and enjoy it.”
Lefty Webster, Charlotte’s lone pick for the preseason all-Conference USA women’s team said: “Yeah, we play basketball, but this allows people to see another side of us. That’s why it’s so much fun.”
Of course, Price said the real sales work comes when the season begins. Both programs open Nov. 13 with a doubleheader – the 49ers women hosting Ball State, Charlotte’s men hosting Elon – at Halton Arena.
“We sell ourselves with the product we put out on the floor on a nightly basis,” said Price, who drew the loudest cheers during introductions. “I think everyone is really going to like our team, and the way they play. They’re going to see that we’re getting better.
“That’s what I like about this – I want the students to get excited about growing with our team. At this time, I know I’m the face of the program, but as time goes on I want the players to become the face of the program.”
▪ Ogbueze won the 3-point shooting contest between four Charlotte players, two each from the men’s and women’s teams. He sank 6 of 11 3-pointers in 30 seconds to advance to the final round, then beat Ciara Gregory (who made 5 of 11 in the first round) with an 8 of 12 effort. Gregory made 6 of 13 in the finals. Also taking part were Griffin Dempsey and Andrien White.
▪ Three players – Amaya Ransom and Kira Gordon from the women’s team, and Bernard Sullivan from the men’s – all tried hitting shots from halfcourt. Ransom came the closest, getting two to bank off the backboard and the front of the rim.
▪ The 49ers women’s players were sporting brand-new home-white uniforms during their Basketball Madness introductions. They nearly had to wear warmups – the new uniforms didn’t arrive until earlier Thursday.
▪ The biggest laughs came during the showing of a “blooper reel” made from the outtakes of the players’ pre-game introduction videos.