Charleston Southern's Mathiang Muo enjoyed a near-perfect night, tallying 23 points on the strength of a 7-of-8 effort from three-point range, to lead Charleston Southern to a convincing 92-69 win over VMI on Thursday night at the Buc Dome. Arlon Harper added 21 points and four assists as CSU (16-9, 11-3) clinched at least a share of the Big South Division title and a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Minus sophomore point guard Saah Nimley – who entered the game as CSU's leading scorer, rebounder, and assist-man – the
Bucs turned in one of their best offensive performances of the campaign. Four players reached double figures, as CSU shot a season-best 60% from the floor and 58% from downtown, connecting on 14-of-24 attempts from deep.
"It was a great night to be a Buc," CSU Head Coach Barclay Radebaugh said after directing his club to its third straight win. "We're a team, and Saah will be the very first to tell you that we're a team. We're all a part of the team. There's no one of us any more valuable or any less valuable.
From day one, that's the first thing I said to them- we're not a guard team, we're not a forward team, we're not a post team, we're a team. When Saah goes down, someone steps in. And that's why they prepare very hard for moments like that."
Senior Jeremy Sexton provided leadership and more outstanding backcourt play for the Bucs, hitting for 19 points and a career-high tying seven assists. Sophomore Sheldon Strickland stepped up in Nimley's place, earning his second start of the season while compiling 11 points, six rebounds and two assists.
VMI (11-15, 6-8) was led by 16 points from junior center DJ Covington, but struggled in shooting just 39 percent from the floor while being outrebounded 44-27.
Brian Brown beat the first half buzzer with an elbow jumper for VMI, but it was CSU that roared out of the locker room with an 8-0 run over the opening 1:57 to forge a 58-40 advantage. Harper was the focal point once again, swishing a three from the left corner before forcing a Duggar Baucom timeout with a steal and layup in transition.
Muo stayed perfect with a step-back trey from the corner to push the CSU advantage to 19, but VMI responded with a quick 13-0 run to crawl back within 61-55 on a Tim Marshall three at the 15:16 mark. The Keydets buried three triples during that stretch, while Covington exhibited his all-around game with a pair of mid-range jumpers.
Undeterred, CSU ran off ten points in a row to reassume control and build a 71-55 lead with 13:35 remaining. Harper and Muo provided the jump start with a floater in the lane and a step-back three, but it was freshman Malcolm Bernard that electrified the raucous partisan crowd.
Bernard caught a run-out pass against the VMI press, and soared for a two-hand dunk over the 6-9 Covington while being fouled. The athletic 6-5 wing missed the ensuing free throw, but Muo grabbed an offensive rebound. Bernard was the beneficiary of the second chance opportunity, nailing a three from the right corner for a five-point possession and a 71-55 CSU advantage.
The closest VMI would come the rest of the way was eleven, as CSU continued to operate at will on the offensive end. With the score 78-65, the Bucs ripped off 14 straight markers while holding VMI scoreless for 7:15.
Muo capped off a near-perfect day with two more triples during the 14-0 blanking, and also added an inside score. Harper and Cedric Bowen combined on the biggest highlight of the final push, as the sophomore duo ran a pick-and-roll with Harper hitting Bowen for a two-hand flush.
"I'm so proud of Sheldon, the way he handled himself tonight," said Radebaugh. "He didn't shoot it as well as he can shoot it, but he took care of the ball, played with great poise, and really worked hard on the defensive end. I'm especially proud of Arlon, he had to step up tonight and carry a lot of load, and then our two seniors were absolutely phenomenal. You could see Jeremy Sexton was not going to lose that game. When they cut it to six, Jeremy kind of took over."
With Nimley sidelined due to injury, CSU was unfazed in a frantic first half that ended with the Bucs on top, 50-40. Led by 13 points and four assists from Jeremy Sexton, CSU shot 56 percent from the floor and connected on 7-of-13 attempts from three while posting a 28-13 advantage on the glass. Harper added 12 points, while Muo was a perfect 3-for-3 from downtown for nine first half tallies.
Muo buried a three from the left wing to open the scoring, following an offensive rebound by Harper. After a Covington score for VMI, junior center Allie Fullah brought the Buc Dome crowd to its feet with a two-hand dunk off a pretty feed from Harper. Fullah continued to make his presence in the paint felt on CSU's next trip down the floor, grabbing an offensive rebound before spinning for a put back and a 7-2 lead.
Behind Harper, CSU stretched its lead to 22-10 courtesy of a 10-3 run. Harper accounted for seven of the points during the stretch, connecting on a pair of free throws, a nifty scoop shot in the lane, and a triple from the left wing.
VMI immediately countered with an 11-2 run of its own to slice the CSU advantage to 24-21. Four different players scored for the Keydets during the spurt, as Covington book-ended the charge with two makes at the charity stripe and a pretty right-handed hook shot.
The Keydets struggled to find their range from their perimeter hitting just 5-of-19 from beyond the arc in the first half. Nonetheless, VMI was still within 33-28 when Stan Okoye swished a trey at the 7:15 mark.
Sexton spurred CSU back into control, though, highlighting a 14-5 run to vault the Bucs ahead by 14. The senior sharpshooter showcased his ability to create off the dribble, three times driving to the basket and creating contact to head to the free throw line. Harper also provided another highlight when he pushed the ball after a VMI bucket and sailed through a tough bank shot from the right baseline for a 40-31 CSU cushion.
Paul Gombwer came off the CSU bench to drill a corner three as well, reinstalling a double-digit advantage at 43-33. Sexton then put the finishing touches on the rally, burying his only triple of the half to up the Bucs' advantage to 47-33.
CSU steps out of league play on Saturday afternoon to take on Rider in the annual ESPN BracketBusters contest. Tipoff in Lawrenceville, N.J. is set for 5 p.m. The Bucs will return to Big South action on Wednesday, February 27 for a crucial road matchup at Southern Division rival Gardner-Webb.