The Charleston Southern Buccaneers battled a wild home crowd and lights-out shooting by top-seeded Southern Miss to push the Golden Eagles to the limit in a 78-71 loss in their 2013 National Invitational Tournament opener on Wednesday night.
Southern Miss (26-9) advances to face No. 5 Louisiana Tech in the second round of the NIT. The Bucs complete their season at 19-13.
Charleston Southern refused to go away against a team that looked every bit like a team that belonged in the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles came at the Bucs with run after run, but CSU never backed down and answered every run with one of its own.
The Bucs fell behind by 14 in the game's final minutes, only to see sophomore guard Saah Nimley fuel a 15-4 run to close the lead to 74-71 in the final minute. A tough, off-balance jumper by USM's Rashard McGill with Malcolm Bernard hanging on him pushed the lead to 76-71 with 19 seconds left to seal the game for USM.
CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh praised a gutty effort by his Bucs in front of a boisterous crowd of over 5,000.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team," Radebaugh said. "That's an NCAA Tournament game on an opponent's home court. They are 31st in the RPI. They deserved to be in the Tournament. They are the second place team from Conference USA and should be in the Tournament, and we were asked to come play them on their home court. We absolutely played them as well as anybody has played them all year. Our guys are champions. They acted like champions before, during, and after the game. We made Charleston Southern proud and the Big South proud."
Nimley had 24 points – 21 in the second half – to lead all scorers. He made 7-of-14 from three-point range.
The sophomore helped counter an impressive shooting night for Southern Miss. The Eagles shot 56 percent from the floor (28-of-50) and 52.6 percent from three-point range (10-of-19).
CSU's Arlon Harper added 18 points and three steals, while Mathiang Muo added 16 points and five rebounds.
Southern Miss' Jonathan Mills led the Eagles with 16 points and nine rebounds. He was 6-of-8 on the night. Forward Dwayne Davis added 15 points and Jerrold Brooks added 14 points.
The Bucs were 14-of-36 from three –point range and outrebounded USM, one of the nation's top rebounding teams, 34-30, and had an 8-rebound edge on the offensive boards.
CSU raced to an early 6-0 lead as Arlon Harper and Mathiang Muo connected on their first two three-point attempts.
The Golden Eagles answered back with a 16-6 run to take a four-point lead. They started 7-of-9 from the floor, attacking the Bucs inside. Jonathan Mills made his first three shots.
USM would extend its lead to 27-16 on the strength of red-hot shooting from the floor. The Eagles made their first five three-pointers and started 10-of-14 from the floor to take their first double-digit lead with just under 10 minutes to play in the first half.
A third triple from Mathiang Muo stopped the run for the moment as CSU cut the lead to 27-19. He added his fourth from the right wing minutes later as CSU climbed back within seven at 32-25. Muo had 15 points in the opening 13 minutes.
The Bucs scrapped their way back into the game over the final five minutes of the half, putting together hustle plays and stiffening defense to cut the lead to 36-32 at the break. Muo had 15 points in the first half to lead all scorers.
CSU scored the first bucket of the second half as Allie Fullah knocked down a hook from the baseline to cut the lead to two, 36-34.
USM would find an answer from the perimeter again as Dwayne Davis buried a three from the top of the key. Southern Miss extended its lead to 44-34 on a three from Neil Watson, but the Bucs battled back again.
CSU cut the lead to 46-44 behind a 10-2 run as Nimley began to find his scoring touch. The sophomore drilled a three from the top of the key and finished a steal on the defensive with a layup and a foul to cut the lead to two.
CSU would cut the lead to three again at 56-53 as Nimley knocked down his second three of the half with 9:22 remaining, but the Eagles simply made too many shots.
Back-to-back three pointers from Jerrold Brooks and a three-point play from Neil Watson drove a 12-3 run for the Eagles down the stretch as USM took a 70-56 lead.
Nimley would rally the Bucs to within three in the game's final minute. He knocked down a three-pointer from the wing as Malcolm Bernard kept a possession alive with an offensive rebound. Forward Paul Gombwer added his first three-pointer of the night as the Bucs cut the lead to 74-71 before McGill's jumper to seal it.
Charleston Southern Head Coach Barclay Radebaugh
On the overall game:
"I couldn't be more proud of our team. That's an NCAA tournament game on an opponent's home court. They are 31 in the RPI. They deserved to be in the Tournament. They are the second place team from Conference USA and should be in the tournament, and we were asked to come play them on their home court. We absolutely played as well as anybody has played them all year. Our guys are champions. They acted like champions before, during and after the game."
On the play of Muo, Nimley and Harper:
"They're just really, really good players. Those guys are just really good. Overall, our effort and the way we scraped inside - we outrebounded them on their home court - just the way we played, we played like we belonged here. We played like we belong here, like we're a postseason tournament team. That was a great experience that will lead us into a great spring and a great summer and an even better next year."