In front of a capacity crowd and with a Big South Championship on the line, Charleston Southern was at its best on Saturday night. The Bucs hit 15 three-pointers to beat rival Coastal Carolina on Senior Night, 75-64, to put the finishing touches on CSU's first regular season title in 26 years.
The Bucs claim their first Big South Conference title since 1986-87 and earn the conference's automatic bid to the NIT, should the Bucs not earn the league's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament by winning next week's Big South Tournament.
CSU finishes the regular 17-11 overall and 12-4 in Big South play, tying High Point for the best record in the regular season. The Bucs are in line for the NIT berth by virtue of a January win over the Panthers.
The win in front of a standing-room only crowd in the Buc Dome will be a moment CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh will remember for a lifetime. He took the time after the game to address the crowd and everyone around the CSU program.
"It has been a great journey with a lot of people involved," Radebaugh said. "A lot of coaches, a lot of administrators have worked really hard. This is something we've been striving for. It was one of our goals to win the regular season and advance into postseason play, to be guaranteed a NIT bid at least. It's just an emotional day for us, the crowd was incredible. For one of the first times I'm at a loss for words."
Immediately after the game, CSU set its sights on next week's Big South Championships, passing on cutting down the Buc Dome nets, making their goals clear for the coming week.
"With all due respect to you guys, we're not cutting down the nets tonight," CSU head coach Radebaugh told the crowd following the game. "Our work isn't done. We won the regular season, now we want to win the (Big South) tournament."
The Buccaneer seniors -- Mathiang Muo and Jeremy Sexton – made the decision that the celebration could wait. The two were honored in a pregame ceremony, capping careers that will end with the best back-to-back seasons for CSU in 20 years.
"The seniors came to me and they said they didn't want to cut (the nets) down," Radebaugh said. "They said their job is not done. They said this was a goal, but not THE goal. They threw me a little curveball as we were prepared to cut them down, but I respect their wishes. They really want to play in Myrtle Beach and they want to win that thing."
Charleston Southern is the No. 1 seed from the South Division and will play on Thursday at noon at The HTC Center. CSU will face the winner of a first round matchup between Radford and Winthrop.
Lost in the celebration was one of the Bucs' best performances of the season. CSU hit 15 three pointers and controlled the game after a slow start.
The roles of the two teams almost seemed to be flip-flopped in the win. Coastal Carolina had beaten the Bucs seven straight times, but outside of the first five minutes, it was CSU who looked like it was in control of the rivalry.
Coastal Carolina opened the game with the role of spoiler on its mind. The Chants took an 11-0 lead in the opening five minutes as the Bucs had a couple of three-point attempts rattle out as Warren Gillis had two early buckets and Anthony Raffa knocked down an early three.
CSU charged back as the Bucs settled in at the friendly confines of the Buc Dome. Muo and Harper sank back-to-back threes as CSU shook off its early shooting woes. Forward Cedrick Bowen beat the Chants' defense down the floor and pounded home a two-handed dunk as CSU quickly cut the lead to 11-8.
The Bucs took their first lead and capped a 15-3 run with a three from Nimley, the first of three for the sophomore to give CSU a lead at 15-14. The Bucs erased the early deficit in a little over four minutes of game time.
Charleston Southern just kept pushing the pace the rest of the half and found the shooting range that has made it one of the top three-point shooting teams throughout the regular season.
Harper and Muo followed a runner from Jeremy Sexton with treys as CSU turned a 17-15 deficit into a 23-17 lead, one the Bucs would not relinquish.
The Buccaneers built their lead its largest lead of the first half at 38-25 on more three pointers. Harper and Muo went back-to-back again and Bowen put back an offensive rebound to finish off a possession in which the Bucs had three offensive boards and four shots.
The Bucs connected on eight three-pointers in the first half to build a 38-30 lead at the break.
CSU quickly built its lead out in the second half. Bowen brought the lively Buc Dome crowd to its feet with a two-handed follow dunk of a Nimley miss to push the lead to 13.
Nimley wouldn't miss over the next few minutes. He scored eight straight points, burying two threes and rolling in a layup while falling to the ground as CSU took a 53-36 lead with 14:47 to play.
The Bucs got key contributions from its bench, including some unexpected offense. Junior guard Matt Kennedy was 4-of-5 from the floor and matched his career high with nine points in the win. Kennedy hit a couple of tough runners with the shot clock winding down in the first half, and added a three in the second half as the Bucs' moved ahead by 20 at 61-41 in the final minutes.
Muo, fittingly, went 5-for-9 from three-point range and had 17 points to lead the Bucs in his final home game. Nimley and Harper each added 15 points. Sexton finished with nine points and six rebounds.
The Bucs connected on 15-of-34 three pointers after going 6-for-32 the first time the two teams met.
Coastal out-rebounded the Bucs, 32-31, but CSU forced 15 turnovers. The Chants out-rebounded the Bucs by 20 in the first meeting.
Raffa had 23 points and six rebounds for CCU. Gillis added 19, but had five turnovers.
CSU finished the regular season 7-1 in Big South play at home and 11-3 overall.
VisitMyrtleBeach.com Big South Basketball Championship: Charleston Southern opens Big South Tournament play on Thursday at noon at the HTC Center in Conway, S.C. The Bucs will face the winner of Winthrop (South No. 5) / Radford (North No. 4) in the first game on Thursday. All four men's quarterfinals are Thursday, while Radford and Winthrop play on Tuesday in the First Round.