It was right there for the taking. The Citadel men's basketball team gave league front runner ETSU all it could handle Monday night and even led with just 1:46 to play in regulation. However, the Buccaneers were ultimately able to hold on in the waning seconds to notch a 73-71 Southern Conference win inside McAlister Field House.
"I'm proud of our guys. I thought they carried out the game plan amazingly and I thought they played with amazing heart," said head coach Duggar Baucom. "We came up with a lot of loose balls and really fought hard, and even with some of our mistakes, we still had a chance to win it at the end and that's really all you can ask for. (ETSU) is a great team, a really good team. They've won 13 in a row for a reason. But we did help them in some critical situations and you just can't do that against the class of the league, and that is what they are."
The Bucs (19-4, 10-0 SoCon) entered the game ranked fifth in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top-25 poll, averaging 77 points per game in conference play while holding their SoCon opponents to just 60.8 points per outing. ETSU has benefitted this season from one of the oldest lineups in the league, including eight seniors and three juniors compared to just two freshmen and two sophomores.
The young Bulldogs (7-14, 2-7 SoCon) have made huge strides over the last couple of weeks and were able to surpass expectations Monday night by playing together with energy and poise while scoring well above the season average given up by the Bucs.
The game ultimately came down to missed layups for the Bulldogs. Five missed opportunities in particular could have proven to be the difference for the homestanding Bulldogs, who played excellent defense, forcing ETSU to play faster than they wanted to while committing 14 turnovers.
The largest lead either side was able to muster in the game was seven points, 17-10 by The Citadel with 11:34 to play in the first half. ETSU was able to establish a six-point, 47-41 lead in the second half.
With just under two minutes left in regulation, the Bulldogs found themselves clinging to a one-point, 68-67 lead after Kaelon Harris was fouled on a layup and converted the old-fashioned three-point play. The Bulldogs ended the night shooting 82.8% (24-of-29) from the charity stripe, marking the third game in a row, and fourth game in the last five that The Citadel has shot over 80% from the free throw line.
However, a couple of trips up and down the floor later, Desonta Bradford gave ETSU the lead back for good as he converted a pair of free throws, setting the score at 69-68.
While the Bucs never relinquished the lead in the closing seconds, the Bulldogs gave it everything they had to come away with the upset victory, and trailed by just four with 11 seconds remaining as Bo Hodges was fouled and converted both of his free throw attempts.
After a quick personnel change on the floor, the Bulldogs turned to the biggest three-point threat on the court, junior Matt Frierson. As he has done several times this season, Frierson deftly knocked down a heavily contested three from the top of the arc to pull the 'Dogs to within one point, 72-71 with just nine seconds left and the clock stopped.
The Citadel quickly called a timeout, and out of the quick break, immediately fouled to send Jalan McCloud to the free throw line with just seven seconds remaining.
McCloud missed the first of his two shots, but hit the second, setting up one last play for the 'Dogs.
Seven seconds proved to be more than enough time for the speedy Frankie Johnson to race down the floor, and he found an open Alex Reed waiting just outside the three-point arc on the left side. Reed pulled the trigger on what the 'Dogs hoped was the game-winning shot. Despite getting an excellent look, Reed's shot was just off the mark and Bradford corralled in the ball as time expired.
The Bulldogs ended the game shooting 31.0% (18-of-58) from the field, including 39.3% (11-of-28) from three-point range. After shooting 42.4% (14-of-33) in the opening half, the Bucs were ice-cold in the second, managing to shoot just 28.6% (8-of-28) from the field. ETSU hit on just two of their 23 three-point attempts (8.7%).
A quartet of Bulldogs led The Citadel in scoring highlighted by Zane Najdawi's 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks. The three blocks marks the 35thtime in his career and the fifth this season that Najdawi has swatted away multiple shots in a game.
Leandro Allende, Harris and Frierson all scored 11 points, combining for eight of the Bulldogs' 11 three-pointers in the game. Frierson and Allende both hit three treys and both Harris and Allende joined Najdawi with a team-high six rebounds. The 11 points and three made three-pointers were both season-highs for Allende.
Bradford led the Buccaneers with a game-high 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds for a double-double. Hodges was the only other player in double-digit scoring as he netted 19 points.
FAST BREAK FACTS
ETSU entered Monday's game averaging 76.9 points per game while holding opponents to 65.0 points per outing on the year. In conference play, the Bucs were averaging 77.0 points per game while holding SoCon foes to 60.8 points per contest. The Citadel was able to hold the Bucs below their average while scoring more than most have this season against ETSU.
The Bulldogs entered the game third in NCAA Division I with an average of 11.8 three-pointers per game. The Citadel connected on 11 treys Monday night, marking the 16th time this season the Bulldogs have converted 10 or more treys.
After struggling at the free throw line for much of the season, the Bulldogs have converted over 80% of their free throw attempts in three straight games, and four of their last five. In the last five games, the Bulldogs have converted 78.9% (86-of-109) of their free throw attempts. It was also just the fourth time this season the 'Dogs have converted at least 20 free throws.
The Bulldogs utilized their 11th different starting lineup Monday night. The Citadel is one of just nine teams in the country to use 11 or more starting rotations this season.
Zane Najdawi ended the game with 18 points, giving him 993 for his career. He enters Thursday's game needing just seven to eclipse the 1,000 point mark.
Najdawi recorded his fifth multiple-block game of the season, and the 35th of his career Monday night as he swatted away three shots. He now has 119 career blocks and is third all-time in program history.
Since opening up SoCon play, the Zane Train has been rolling as Najdawi has averaged 21.4 points per game, including four straight performances of 21 or more points.
Monday night against ETSU, Matt Frierson kept both of his streaks alive as he converted three three-pointers for the Bulldogs. Monday's game was the ninth game in a row Frierson has converted multiple three-pointers and the 27th straight game he has converted at least one trey.
Monday's 11-point, six-rebound performance by Leandro Allende marked the first time this season the sophomore has scored in double figures. Allende also hit a season-high three three-pointers in the game.
Frankie Johnson finished the game against ETSU with seven assists. It marks the fifth time in six games that Johnson has had six or more assists for the Bulldogs and the fourth time in five games that he has had seven or more assists.
The Bulldogs will next host Wofford on Thursday, Feb. 1 before closing out the tough homestand by hosting Furman on Saturday, Feb. 3.