Charleston Southern sophomore guard Arlon Harper scored a career-high 33 points as the Bucs rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to beat No. 2 North seed VMI, 71-65, in the semifinals of the VisitMyrtleBeach.com Big South Conference Men's Basketball Championship on Saturday at The HTC Center.
The Bucs advance to Sunday's Championship Game and will face No. 5 North seed Liberty. Tipoff is at noon at the HTC Center. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and will be broadcast locally on Sports Radio 1450-AM in Charleston.
"I just thank God for the opportunity to represent Charleston Southern and the Big South," CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh said after the Bucs' come-from-behind victory. "I'm also real thankful for the progression of our program. Tomorrow, we're on national TV. Now we're this close, it would be awfully nice to win. We've gotten better every year and really excited about that for our program, our team and for our University."
CSU (19-11, 12-4 BSC) trailed wire-to-wire in the first half and by as many as nine, but assumed control in the second stanza behind Harper, who pumped in 21 of his 33 following intermission.
Harper keyed a 9-0 run that gave CSU the advantage for good. The sophomore guard netted a pair of free throws to give the Bucs their first advantage, 33-32, with 16:31 remaining. He was back at it on the following possession, as he drove the lane and found Paul Gombwer underneath for a lay-in. Harper then capped the surge to move CSU in front, 37-32, as he tipped in a Sheldon Strickland miss after the junior intercepted a VMI outlet pass.
"It was certainly a tale of two halves," Radebaugh commented following the win. "I told our guys at halftime we're going to win this game because we can't play any worse. We were playing with just incredible effort (in the first half) and shot after shot didn't go in. As long as we kept executing like that, we were going to be fine. I was so pleased with them because we had a chance to go way down there. We had a chance to go way down and they kept their poise."
VMI (14-17, 8-8 BSC) kept pace, as jumpers by Stan Okoye and DJ Covington pulled the Keydets back within one at 45-44 with 12:50 left in the contest. CSU responded with a 12-3 spurt to up its cushion to 57-47 at the 8:55 mark. Harper was front and center again during the crucial juncture, as four Bucs scored over the stretch.
Gombwer jumpstarted the run with a put back of a Strickland shot, one of his seven offensive rebounds on the afternoon. Harper hit the offensive glass next, driving right at Okoye and cleaning up his own miss over the Big South Player of the Year for a 49-44 lead. Okoye stifled some of the momentum with a driving bucket in the lane, but CSU countered with eight of the next nine to build its largest advantage of the game.
In a game where the Bucs received contributions up and down the roster, junior Matt Kennedy began the run with a three-pointer from the left wing. Cedric Bowen converted next, as Harper again exploited VMI with dribble penetration and hit his sophomore forward for a layup. Harper provided the exclamation point after a Rodney Glasgow free throw, burying a trey for the ten-point lead.
VMI crept back in with seven straight points, the last three of which came on a Glasgow old-fashioned three-point play. Nimley took the mantle from his backcourt mate and classmate, Harper, this time, as he drilled a long three from the top of the key to thwart the Keydet rally and up the Bucs lead to 60-54.
Another trey from Harper moved the CSU advantage to 63-54 at the 4:52 mark, but VMI would not go down easy. Sparked by four straight points from Okoye, and a dunk by Covington, the Keydets whittled their deficit to 65-60 and then made it a one-possession game on Glasgow's drive to the hoop with 44 seconds left.
The Bucs sealed the win from the charity stripe, though, hitting their last six attempts to move into the Big South Tournament finals for the first time since 2005. Kennedy connected on a clutch pair to re-install a two-possession lead, before Glasgow came through with another three-point play to pull VMI within two. Harper then calmly stepped to the line and swished two more, establishing a new career-high in the process. A Glasgow jumper went begging on VMI's next possession and Harper claimed the rebound and sailed home two more at the stripe to put the finishing touches on a magnificent performance.
Glasgow played a brilliant first half for VMI, tallying 20 of his career-high 31 in the opening twenty minutes to spur the Keydets to a 30-25 halftime lead. Two days after shooting only 28 percent in a quarterfinal win over Winthrop, CSU struggled to find the range in the first half, hitting just 24 percent of its shots (10-41) and 2-of-10 from downtown.
VMI twice led by as many as nine, the first of which came on the strength of a 7-0 run that prompted a Radebaugh timeout following a Covington turn-around jumper with 12:23 remaining in the period. The Bucs continued to chip away at the deficit and played pretty good defense themselves, limiting VMI to 12-of-34 shooting (35 percent) while also forcing nine turnovers.
CSU came as close as 27-25 late in the half on a Harper three from the left wing, but Glasgow answered with a corner triple right in front of the Bucs' bench to close out the first half scoring.
That set the stage for the second half, where the Bucs found their shooting stroke en route to going 15-of-33 (45 percent), highlighted by a 6-of-9 clip from deep.
Depth played a crucial role in CSU's victory, as the Bucs outscored the Keydets 24-6 off the bench. Gombwer was at the forefront of that effort with eight points and ten rebounds. Along with rangy 6-5 freshman Malcolm Bernard, Gombwer also aided the defensive effort against Okoye. The Big South's leader in scoring and rebounding entered on a run of three consecutive 30-plus point efforts, but missed his first nine shots versus CSU's aggressive man-to-man defense and finished only 4-of-16 from the field.
The Bucs also enjoyed the advantage in the turnover battle, committing just six to VMI's 14. CSU reaped the benefit of those miscues, posting an 18-1 advantage in points off turnovers.
"It's just going to be tough," said Radebaugh of Sunday's title game matchup. "Liberty is so big and tall and is a good defensive team. We were able to shake some things loose today, because of the pace. It's going to be hard. We're going to have execute well, we're going to have to knock in some open shots. And if we do that, then we're going to be fine. Because we know for two games in a row, we've defended. And even though Glasgow had a big game, once we made those adjustments, we really defended."
The Bucs bested Liberty, 79-75, in Lynchburg on January 26 in the only meeting between the two sides this year. CSU withstood a late Flames rally in that one to win behind 23 points from Saah Nimley. Davon Marshall paced Liberty with 23 markers, connecting on 7-of-14 attempts from beyond the three-point arc.
CSU reaches the Big South Tournament final for the first time since 2005 and makes its first appearance in the championship game under Barclay Radebaugh.