Charleston Southern's Sheldon Strickland poured in a career-high 35 points and the Bucs turned in one of their most complete performances of the year in a convincing 80-66 victory over Liberty on Saturday night at the Buc Dome.
Strickland hit his first five three-pointers of the game and finished 13-of-18 from the field and 7-of-11 from three to carry the offensive load for CSU (10-11, 4-4 BSC). The Bucs' intense man-to-man defense frustrated Liberty (9-14, 3-5 BSC) all night long, as the Flames shot only 34 percent from the floor while making 7-of-23 attempts from downtown.
CSU led by as many as 23 in the first half and by 18 and halftime before building its advantage to 27 at the 13:33 mark of the second half. The Bucs never trailed in delivering the kind of effort that made them the Big South's South Division favorite entering the season.
Junior Will Saunders added 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Arlon Harper returned from injury to tally 11 points off the bench. Senior Alhaji Fullah continued his strong recent play, posting eight points, ten rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals. CSU out-rebounded Liberty, 39-38, and controlled the paint against a big Flames' frontline that had powered them to the eighth best rebounding margin in the country.
"We need to play defense like that the rest of the year," CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh said afterward. "That was the best we've played on defense all year. We spent four long, hard practice days working on defense. We are capable of playing like a good defensive team. We've got guys who can get down in a stance and guard the ball. We played great defense against a really good team tonight."
Strickland delivered a brilliant shooting performance two days after hitting only 2-of-17 from the floor in CSU's loss to Campbell. He buried five treys by the 10:22 mark of the first half, the last of which staked CSU to a 29-9 lead.
The senior from Lithonia, Ga. eliminated any thoughts of a Liberty comeback with a stretch of seven straight points in the second half after the Flames had come within 16 thanks to a 13-2 run. He knocked down his seventh and final trey of the night and connected on a pair of foul line pull-up jumpers to put Liberty away. Radebaugh loved the confidence Strickland showed in rising to the occasion in place of an injured Saah Nimley.
"Sheldon could have shot like that [against Campbell on Wednesday night]," Radebaugh said. "What I liked about his game at Campbell was that he wasn't afraid to keep shooting. He wanted to put the team on his back. He did that tonight. He did it at Campbell, but the shots just didn't fall. He's got a lot of courage and he did what seniors are supposed to do."
Charleston Southern set the tone from the opening tip, sprinting out to a 15-2 lead by the 15:58 mark of the opening stanza. Saunders opened the scoring on the first possession of the game with a three-pointer from the right corner, while early hustle by Fullah and Paul Gombwer led to Strickland's first triple. Fullah added a jump hook on the baseline to give CSU an 8-0 advantage and force a Liberty timeout just over two minutes into play.
John Caleb Sanders opened the scoring for Liberty on a running jumper, but CSU again pressed their advantage from deep as Strickland, Saunders and Harper all connected from beyond the arc in pushing the Buccaneers ahead, 21-5, with 14:29 left in the half.
Back-to-back three-pointers by Davon Marshall and Tomasz Gielo finally got the Liberty offense on track as the Flames cut the lead down to 29-15 with 9:41 remaining in the half, but Strickland again provided the answer with a three-pointer. Strickland's triple led to an 11-2 run that was capped by a jumper by Fullah in the paint to give Charleston Southern its largest lead of the first half at 40-17 with 6:37 to play. The Bucs would head into intermission sporting a 45-27 edge.
CSU then stormed out of the locker room with a 16-7 run to effectively put the game away and take a 61-34 lead with 13:33 left. Gombwer scored six of the Bucs' first eight points of the second half, the last two of which came on a pretty spinning left-handed layup to account for a 22-point advantage.
Strickland provided the highlight of the opening surge, using a behind the back dribble to get by Sanders for a two-handed dunk on a fast break. Freshman Bakari Copeland swished a foul line jumper to cap the spurt, as CSU dominated the game from start to finish.
CSU is back in action Wednesday night, as it hosts Radford at the Buc Dome. Tipoff between the Bucs and Highlanders is slated for 7:30 p.m.