Beating Cincinnati in the semifinals was for respect. Winning the entire Conference USA tournament was for their missing teammate.
North Carolina Charlotte's Kelvin Price was sitting in the dentist's office last week when he read an article about teammate Charles Hayward and his battle with leukemia.
"I read that article and it inspired me, and it inspired us to come here and get this done," Price said.
Diego Guevara scored 16 points and the 49ers earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a 68-59 win over Louisville on Saturday in the Conference USA final.
The 49ers (22-10) play with a plastic seat cover with Hayward's name and number holding his spot on the bench. The sophomore, who missed all of last season with leukemia, thought he could play this year. But 10 games into the season, he learned the leukemia was back.
"He's had a tougher battle than anything we go through," tournament MVP Galen Young said. "He's in our minds and with us all the time. We played for him."
The 49ers, who have won seven consecutive games, nearly squandered a 19-point second-half lead, but Guevara made two free throws with 12 seconds to play to help Charlotte win its first C-USA tournament in three tries. Charlotte lost to Cincinnati in last year's final and Marquette in the 1997 final.
"We've been here three years and seen the other teams cut the nets down," Young said. "It was our turn now."
A quirk in the seeding made Charlotte the fifth seed, even though the 49ers had the fourth best record in the conference. The fourth seed had to be from the C-USA's national division, so Southern Miss got it and a first round bye despite its 14-16 record.
That meant the 49ers had to win four games, as well as get past No. 7 Cincinnati for a second time ths season, to earn the automatic bid.
They did and beat Cincinnati 55-52 in Friday's semifinal, which finally gave the 49ers the respect they failed to earn after their 62-60 regular-season victory over the Bearcats. An inadvertent whistle called off what would have been Cincinnati's game winning 3-pointer in that game.
"We won four games in four days, we beat Cincinnati and Louisville, I'd say that's quite an accomplishment," Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said. "We're looking forward to next week. I guess we're in."
Second-seeded Louisville (19-10), which won eight of its last 11 games, could still earn an at-large NCAA bid.
"In spots we played well, but we didn't play well for 40 minutes and at tournament time you've got to play well for 40 minutes," Louisville coach Denny Crum said.
The 49ers, who led 36-26 at the half, made three 3-pointers in a two minute stretch to build a 54-35 lead with 12:43 to play.
The Cardinals answered back, connecting on three consecutive 3-pointers in an 11-2 run that made it 56-46 at the 7:26 mark.
Louisville cut it to single digits on a jumper by Tony Williams that made it 61-52. Galen Young made two free throws to put the 49ers back up 63-52, but Williams made his fourth 3-pointer of the day and Marques Maybin made a layup under the basket to make it 63-57 with 2:32 to go.
"We got way behind and couldn't quite get over the hump," Crum said. " We just ran out of time."
Nate Johnson scored on a jumper that made it 63-59 with 39 seconds to play. Young then missed the front end of a one-and-one, Louisville got the rebound but couldn't convert.
Cameron Murray's 3-pointer was short, Maybin got the rebound but turned the ball over when he stepped on the line.
The Cardinals were forced to foul from there. Williams led Louisville with 19 points and Murray, named to the all-tournament team, had 13.
"We didn't play Louisville basketball today," Eric Johnson said. " With about 11 minutes left, we finally started playing every possession like the last one, but it was too late."
Kelvin Price, also named to the all-tournament team, scored 12 points for Charlotte and Young had 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
Kedric Smith gave Charlotte its largest lead of the first half on his second buzzer beater in as many days. His tip-in as time expired gave the 49ers a 36-26 halftime lead.
Smith's off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Charlotte a seven-point halftime lead over Cincinnati in Friday's semifinal.
The Cardinals led 18-14 at the 10:57 mark. Charlotte then went on a 17-4 run, sparked by back-to-back 3-pointer by Guevara, to take a 31-22 lead with 6:05 to go. Guevara had 11 points at the half and was 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
Guevara and Cincinnati's Pete Mickeal rounded out the all-tournament team.
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