When Cliff Ellis agreed to take over Coastal Carolina’s middling men’s basketball program in 2007 and make his return to coaching after successful stints under larger spotlights at Clemson and Auburn, he came with the intent of doing exactly what he had done his whole career – elevating a program in need.

And were the Chanticleers ever in need.

They had just one winning season in the 13 years before his arrival and hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1993. They had run through three coaches since that time and had almost no national profile.

Ellis needed only three years to change most of that, to win the first of two back-to-back regular-season conference championships, but still the grand prize had continued to elude the program – until Sunday.

With its 76-61 win over Winthrop in the Big South championship game, the Chants earned the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth, ending that 21-year wait and doing it on their own court inside The HTC Center before an announced crowd of 3,072 as well as a national ESPN2 audience.

“In my seven years, this is the biggest thing that has happened to this university since I’ve been here,” Ellis said afterward. “You win on national television. You’re going to play in the Big Dance. There’s no bigger exposure that any sport can give at Coastal [than] the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. That’s my opinion.”

University president David DeCenzo was among those to congratulate Ellis on the court once the scene subsided a bit, after the fans had poured out of their seats and joined the team in celebration, and he too spoke of what the feat meant to not just the program but the school in general.

“This is just one of the most exciting things that’s happened to us in Chanticleer basketball,” DeCenzo said. “And what this does for exposure of the university, you just can’t put a price on it. ... To have it here on the home court, to have the kind of tournament that we had, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

That’s what Coastal Carolina athletic director Hunter Yurachek was thinking about as he looked out over an arena packed full of fans coated in teal, along with a respectable contingent of Winthrop supporters.

It was the second-straight year Coastal had hosted the Big South tournament after winning a bid made in conjunction with VisitMyrtleBeach.com for a three-year deal. And this, Yurachek said, was why the university pushed for that – to be able to have this moment happen in front of the home fan base.

“This was our vision two and a half years ago when we went after this bid to host the Big South championship,” he said. “When I arrived here, there were some skeptics that said we would never fill this building – it was too big for Coastal Carolina. That’s one of the things that went through my mind, that there was 3,200 people in this building cheering, the energy, the excitement, that it had actually come full circle with that.”

At least a couple former players were in attendance as well as former center Jon Pack and former four-year starting point guard Kierre Greenwood made their way to the court afterward.

Both had played on those two 28-win teams that won regular-season championships before losing in the Big South finals in 2010 and 2011 inside old Kimbel Arena.

“It’s come a long way from Kimbel Arena when the sell-outs would be 1,000 seats,” Pack said. “It was awesome to see all the fan support coming out and I’m excited for the guys to go to the tournament.”

And the most compelling story line is that this Chants team was the one to finally do it.

They were picked third in the Big South’s South Division in the conference’s preseason poll and got off to a 7-8 start before turning their season around and surging through the league schedule.

They’ll now take a 21-12 record into the NCAA tournament and will learn their seeding and matchup during the tournament selection show next Sunday.