Charleston Southern's Big South Tournament run came to an end on Sunday as the Bucs ran into a hot-shooting Liberty squad in an 87-76 loss in CSU's first Championship Game appearance since 2005.
Charleston Southern (19-12) will still make its first postseason appearance since 1997 next week in the NIT. The Bucs captured the Big South's regular season title and, as a result, an automatic berth to the NIT. Pairings and seeding will be announced on March 17 at 9 p.m. The selection show will be televised on ESPNU.
Liberty out rebounded the Bucs, 39-31, and limited CSU to one shot throughout the game. The Bucs never put together a scoring spurt similar to the ones that lifted the Bucs to 19 wins each of the last two seasons, the most in back-to-back years by the Buccaneers since the mid-80s.
The Bucs had no answer – and neither did the rest of the Big South – for Liberty's Davon Marshall. He earned Tournament MVP honors after scoring 20 points in Sunday's win. He was 6-of-7 from three-point range, and knocked down a pair of big threes in the second half with defenders hanging on him.
Bucs' head coach Barclay Radebaugh gave the Flames their due running the gauntlet in the Big South Tournament.
"What a terrific job by Coach Layer to win four games in six days against the competition that he had to beat," Radebaugh told the media following the game. "To win a championship is just a terrific accomplishment by him, his staff, and his players. For them to come in here and to get that kind of effort today was very impressive."
Radebaugh was poised and focused on the big picture following his first championship game as a head coach. He didn't want to let a tough loss against a hot team take away from some of the monumental strides his team has made over the last few years.
"Our guys are champions and nobody can take away that we're the regular season champions, nobody can take away that we're the South Division champions, nobody can take away that we're going to the NIT," Radebaugh added. "We're going to be in a postseason tournament for the first time in a long time (16 years). The accomplishments by this group of young men are getting better every year. We've gone from 13 wins to 16 wins to 19 wins and a conference tournament win, now 19 wins and into the finals."
Liberty's John Caleb Sanders led all scorers with 27 points in the title game, but it was Marshall that kept the Bucs behind on Sunday. He keyed a 15-8 run in the second half with two three pointers as the Flames broke open a 41-40 game and built a 56-48 lead. He was 17-of-24 from three-point range on the week as the Flames beat both of the top seeds and host Coastal Carolina. His 17 made three-point field goals is a Big South Tournament record.
Sanders hit 11-of-12 free throws – in a game drenched with 56 combined free throws – to keep CSU from rallying.
The Bucs finished just 9-of-28 from three-point range and shot only 33 percent from long range for the tournament.
Liberty was 9-of-18 from three-point range as a team and shot 48 percent from the floor in the title game.
"It just wasn't our day," Radebaugh said of the loss. "We had a tough time stopping them defensively. They made some tough shots and they made some nice plays. We certainly respect their game plan and how they executed it and how they attacked us, changing a lot defensively. The matchup zone gave us a little bit of a problem. Our guys fought. We didn't shoot the ball great, we didn't play great, but we fought."
Five Bucs scored in double figures, led by sophomore Saah Nimley with 18 points. He was just 7-of-17 from the floor and 1-of-7 from three-point range. Senior Jeremy Sexton added 17 points, while Arlon Harper had 14 points and Mathiang Muo chipped in 12.
Sexton climbed up the Bucs' career scoring chart, passing four players on the day to move to eighth on the Bucs' all-time scoring list with 1,253 career points. He also took sole possession of third on the CSU career list with 207 three-pointers made.
Charleston Southern took a brief 40-37 second half lead when Arlon Harper buried a three-pointer from the left wing with 18:12 remaining. Sanders scored four straight points, though, hitting a jumper and two free throws to move Liberty in front for good, 41-40, just 43 seconds later.
CSU kept pace over the next several minutes, and was still down only 46-44 after Jeremy Sexton put home a pretty spinning layup in the lane. The Flames pushed their advantage to five, only to see Sexton swish another jumper to bring the Bucs within 50-47 at the 13:43 mark.
Liberty then assumed control, however, engineering an 8-1 run to go up 58-48 with 10:27 left in the contest. Davon Marshall connected on one of his six treys during the spurt, which Joel Vander Pol completed with a layup.
Balanced scoring allowed the Bucs to stay around, as a layup by Paul Gombwer and a pair of Arlon Harper free throws kept the deficit at six with 8:31 on the clock. Liberty came with an answer immediately, rattling off eight straight points in a span of 1:30 to take their biggest lead of the game, 68-54, at the 5:28 mark. Tomas Gielo provided the spark during the decisive stretch, as he hit a layup and swished a triple from deep on the left wing to help put the Bucs away.
CSU had one last gasp when it trimmed the deficit to nine and forced two straight turnovers, but Nimley's three from the top of the key went begging and the Liberty lead was never less than eight the rest of the way.
Sanders delivered the game's first bucket, drilling a trey from the left side late in the shot clock. CSU's Mathiang Muo answered several possessions later, as he connected on a triple from right in front of the Liberty bench to get the Bucs on the scoreboard after starting in a 6-0 hole.
Liberty built its lead back out to six on two separate occasions in the opening stanza, behind the hot shooting of Sanders and Marshall. Jeremy Sexton jumpstarted a 7-0 run to give CSU its second lead of the afternoon after the Flames had moved in front, 22-16. The senior sharpshooter swished a triple from the right side and hit two free throws, before Harper converted a Sanders turnover into a mid-range jumper for a 23-22 Bucs' advantage.
The rest of the first half was back and forth, with the lead changing hands three times. There were also five ties, the last of which came after Cedric Bowen threw down a two-handed dunk off dribble penetration by Matt Kennedy. Strickland gave the Bucs their final lead of the period with a free throw, before Tavares Speaks beat the buzzer with a foul-line jumper to send the Flames into halftime on top, 35-34.