Charleston Southern entered Thursday’s Big South Championship quarterfinal against regular season champion and top-seeded UNC Asheville expecting to win. The Bucs played like it, battling the Bulldogs to the final buzzer for the second time in 11 days before falling, 71-66, before a frenzied partisan crowd at Kimmel Arena.
CSU (15-16) trailed by 13 points late in the first half and by 14 early in the second but refused to quit against a veteran Asheville (21-11) team playing on its home floor. Powered by guards Christian Keeling and Cortez Mitchell, the Bucs stayed within striking distance throughout and turned up their defensive pressure late to nearly oust the Bulldogs.
CSU held Asheville scoreless for 6:05, whittling a nine-point deficit to three with 1:16 left. Following a stop, the Bucs had possession with a chance to close within one or tie but came up empty. Ahmad Thomas finally ended Asheville’s drought on the ensuing trip, burying a step back jumper from just outside the lane to seal victory and send the Bulldogs into Friday’s semifinals.
Just 11 days after hooking up in an overtime classic at the Buc Dome, Barclay Radebaugh’s young squad again proved they belonged. CSU was 2-7 at the midway mark of conference play but won eight of its final 11 games and twice pushed Asheville to the brink.
“I’m just so proud of our guys and the way they competed,” Radebaugh said. “Nothing bothers these guys. They came here and played the best team in the league on their home floor and fully expected to win. Certainly, it was a game that came down to a couple of plays.”
“This group has been so much fun to coach,” Radebaugh continued. “They really love each other and play for each other and that’s the reason we were able to improve like we did over the last month. With the group we have coming back, we have a chance to be special. We’ve got a shot to be really, really good and I’m excited about where we’re headed.”
How It Happened
Asheville led for all but three minutes and enjoyed a 69-60 edge following Drew Rackley’s three-pointer with 6:15 remaining. CSU then locked in defensively to give itself a chance at a semifinal berth for the first time since 2013.
CSU could not take full advantage of Asheville’s cold spell, though, as the Bucs scored only six points over the final 4:58. Jumpers by Keeling and Mitchell shaved CSU’s deficit to 69-64 and Travis McConico added two free throws to make it 69-66 at the 1:16 mark.
Another defensive stand gave CSU possession down three with less than a minute to play. After a timeout, Keeling drew Asheville big man Jonathan Baehre on a switch and got a good look at the rim but could not connect. Thomas, a two-time first-team all-conference pick and two-time defensive player of the year, then buried a jumper to help Asheville survive.
Asheville led 41-34 at halftime and threatened to blow the game open early in the second, pushing its advantage to 52-38 on Raekwon Miller’s triple at the 17:03 mark. CSU responded with an 8-0 spurt, however, and made the Bulldogs sweat the rest of the way. Keeling and Phlandrous Fleming Jr. knocked down treys and Mitchell punctuated the spurt with a driving finish past MaCio Teague to fire up the Bucs’ bench.
In the first half, Asheville used a 22-9 run to open a 33-20 lead with 4:44 left. Teague was the catalyst, hitting for all 17 of his points before halftime.
CSU closed the halftime margin to seven behind a late flurry of seven points from Mitchell.
Inside the Numbers
Keeling led all scorers with 24 points and finished his sophomore season with 1,031 career markers.
Mitchell tallied 14 points in his final collegiate game. He averaged 13 points over CSU’s final 11 games to help drive the Bucs’ turnaround.
Thomas and Teague, who combined for 93 points in Asheville’s regular season sweep of CSU, paced the Bulldogs with 17. Teague, forced to sit for eight minutes after picking up his fourth foul, did not score in the second half.
Raekwon Miller was perhaps the x-factor for the Bulldogs. Asheville’s senior point guard finished with 12 points and added nine rebounds and a career-high nine assists.
Asheville, the Big South’s leader in assists, assisted 17 of its 26 field goals. The Bulldogs shot 54 percent in the opening half but were limited to 43 percent after intermission.