Matt Lynch cuts down the net after South Carolina Salkehatchie wins its conference tournament. | Grace Sorrells

Four years ago, Matt Lynch was an unemployed college basketball coach with no job prospects and still a closeted gay man. Four years later, he’s living out a dream as an out championship-winning coach.

On Saturday, Lynch’s seventh-seeded South Carolina Salkehatchie men’s team (20-13) concluded its Cinderella conference run by winning the Region 10 tournament in NJCAA Division I with a 69-59 victory over top-seeded Caldwell Tech in Hickory, N.C.

With the win, Salkehatchie advances to the Division I junior college tournament March 24-30 in Hutchison, Kansas. (March 25 update: Salkehatchie’s season ended with a 96-82 loss to host Hutchinson and finished 20-14).

“All season long we have talked about ‘getting to Kansas’ and this weekend we lived up to those words. I am so proud of our guys and I am so thankful for my staff, Maurice Crowder and Christian White,” Lynch told Outsports after the victory. “What we have done over the course of this season can never be taken away from us, and we aren’t done yet.”

Lynch, 33, is gay and the only out men’s college basketball coach in the country.

In its tournament run, Salkehatchie beat the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds as it ran its winning streak to six games. Lynch’s family was on hand for the three games, including his mom and brother Jeremy, himself a coach, and Rob Burke, Lynch’s best friend and coach of Chowan University (where Lynch was an assistant last season). I know Lynch was thinking of how proud his late father, Bill, would be of him. After the game, Lynch got the sweetest gift of all, a Gatorade ice bath from his team.

A perfect end to the tournament for Salkehatchie. Photo by Grace Sorrells/Shotwithgrace

We have chronicled Lynch’s challenge in literally building a program at Salkehatchie from scratch after the school canceled its previous season. As I have written before, at various points Lynch was a carpet-layer, painter, rental agent, publicist and fund-raiser, all while assembling a far-flung roster, many from overseas. And then he had to find the time to coach the team.

It was a challenge Lynch acknowledged and never shied away from. It was best summed up in a quote he gave the New York Times for an inspiring article by Billy Witz last week that wound up running on the front page of the paper. “All I ever wanted was an opportunity,” he said. “The way I looked at it was this may be a bad job, but it’s my bad job. You’ve got to make the big time where you are.”

Lynch had by far the youngest team in the tournament, with 14 freshmen from the U.S., Australia, Britain and Costa Rica. Molding the team had its ups and downs and growing pains, but the sign of success is whether a team is playing better at the end of the season than the beginning and Lynch aced it.

“From the start of the season they had instant chemistry and through a little bit of shared struggle, we quickly became a family,” Lynch said of his players. And that becomes evident in the way we play. We lead the league in assists and in defensive field goal percentage and we did it with a bunch of freshmen from all over the world who we’re all looking for an opportunity.”

The backdrop to this season was Lynch being openly gay. He addressed it to his team before the start of the season, but it was a non-issue throughout. It shows that such a situation can be navigated by being transparent and yet not making it a defining issue. Lynch is first and foremost a basketball coach, and as he told me: “It’s no one’s business who I put my head down next to at night.”

Salkehatchie will enter the 24-team national tournament as an underdog, seeded 22nd, meaning they would have to win four games in a row to claim the national title. Their first game is Monday March 25 versus host Hutchinson, the 11th seed, a tough draw having to play the host school on its home court.

“Cinderalla Salk,” Lynch texted me when I brought up their underdog status. “Cinderella wins the prince in the end,” I reminded him, which would be a fitting ending for a fairytale season.

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