Before Friday evening, The Citadel men's basketball program had never won a Southern Conference Men's Basketball Championship game in back-to-back years. With a 78-70 win over No. 9 seed VMI in the first game of the tournament at the U.S. Cellular Center, the Bulldogs checked that off the list.
"I'm so proud of my guys for hanging on," said head coach Duggar Baucom following the win. "We probably should have made a few more free throws in the game, but we made enough. I'm just very proud of our guys. Our freshman really stepped up. Everyone on the floor contributed. I'm very, very pleased with the overall contributions. It was spread out pretty even.I thought (Frankie Johnson) did an amazing job at getting people the ball. Matt Frierson made one of the best passes of the game, where he had an open shot and passed it off to Quayson Williams for a better one."
VMI (9-21) started the game by hitting four 3-pointers to take a seven-point, 12-5 lead over The Citadel (11-20) before stretching the lead out to 12, 23-11 with 9:00 to play in the opening half after SoCon Freshman of the Year Bubba Parham hit a jumper.
The Bulldogs responded nicely, spurred by an Alex Reed jumper in the paint, and with 3:53 to play, Hayden Brown started an 8-0 run to lead the Bulldogs to a one-point, 32-31 lead with 2:08 to go in the half.
The Citadel out-scored the Keydets 4-2 in the final 1:45 to take a two-point, 36-34 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Out of the intermission, The Bulldogs quickly worked to build on the momentum and the lead. Frankie Johnson started the half off with a 3-pointer to begin a stretch of eight straight treys in the first eight minutes of the second half for the Bulldogs. Included in that stretch were all four of Matt Frierson's, two by Quayson Williams and one by Brown as the shot clock expired.
Brown's three-pointer, a heavily-contested, two-handed chuck, set the Bulldog advantage at 18, 62-44, and it appeared as if the game would be a blow out.
However, the Keydets refused to go quietly, and with 2:45 remaining in regulation, The Citadel found itself clinging to a three-point, 73-70 lead after Garrett Gilkeson hit a jumper. However, the Keydets did not score another point for the final 2:45 of the game, with the Bulldogs putting the game away at the charity stripe with four free throws.
After struggling from the field and from beyond the 3-point arc in the first half, the Bulldogs bounced back to finish the game shooting 40% (24-of-60) from the field and 37.8% (14-of-37) from 3-point range. The Bulldogs shot 45.8% (11-of-24) in the second half, including connecting on 57.1% (8-of-14) of their 3-point attempts in the second period.
The Bulldogs were led by All-SoCon first-team selection Zane Najdawi with a game-high 16 points, including a game-high seven free throws. Najdawi, who has now led the Bulldogs in scoring 14 times this season, added seven rebounds, a pair of assists and steals and one block in 33 minutes of work.
Behind Najdawi, Johnson and Frierson each scored 12 points with Johnson shooting 3-of-6 from the field and 2-of-3 from 3-point range. Johnson ended the game with five assists and four steals while Frierson had four treys.
Brown was the final Bulldog to finish the game in double digits as he had 11 points and four rebounds in 18 minutes of action. Brown shot 3-of-6 from the field and went 4-of-5 (80%) at the charity stripe.
VMI ended the game shooting 37.1% (26-of-70) from the field and struggled from the 3-point range, hitting on just 29.4% (10-of-34) of their 3-point attempts.
Keith Smith led the Keydets with 15 points off 5-of-11 shooting (45.5%) and a game-high five 3-pointers. Jordan Ratliffe finished with 13 points and Austin Vereen had a game-high 11 rebounds.
FAST BREAK FACTS
The 78-70 win over VMI in the first round of the tournament marks the first time in program history that The Citadel has won a tournament game in back-to-back years.
The win over VMI improves the Bulldogs' record to 3-0 against the Keydets in the SoCon Tournament all-time.
The Bulldogs' 78 points scored Friday evening are tied for 10th most for points scored by a Bulldog team in a SoCon Tournament game.
The Bulldogs' 14 made 3-pointers Friday versus VMI are tied for the most treys converted by a Bulldog team in a SoCon Tournament game.
The 37 3-pointers attempted by The Citadel is the most treys ever attempted by a Bulldog team in a SoCon Tournament game.
The 29 defensive rebounds by The Citadel in Friday's game are tied for the second most defensive boards by a Bulldog team in a SoCon Tournament game.
The 39 total rebounds by The Citadel are tied for fourth most in a SoCon Tournament game by The Citadel.
The Bulldogs' 19 assists are tied for the most by a Bulldog team in a SoCon Tournament game.
The Bulldogs' 10 steals Friday are tied for second most by a Citadel basketball team in a SoCon Tournament game.
Junior Matt Frierson connected on four 3-pointers Friday evening. The quartet of treys is tied for seventh most 3-pointers made by an individual Bulldog in a SoCon Tournament game.
Sophomore Frankie Johnson had four steals Friday afternoon against VMI. The four steals are tied for the most steals by a Bulldog in a SoCon Tournament game.
Johnson also had five assists, tied for eighth most by a Bulldog individual in a SoCon Tournament game.
With his four 3-pointers Friday, Frierson has now converted at least one 3-pointer in 37 consecutive games. It is the 15th time this season the junior has had at least a quartet of treys in a game.
With his five assists Friday, Johnson now has 133 assists on the year and 254 for his career. His season total is currently seventh in program history for assists in a season by an individual and his career total is 12th.
Johnson's four steals Friday gives him 57 on the year and 106 for his career. His season total is currently tied for third most by an individual in a season. He is just two steals away from cracking the top-15 in program history for steals in a career.
Junior forward Zane Najdawi led all scorers with 16 points. It marks the 14th time this season Najdawi has led the Bulldogs in scoring.
Najdawi also moves up two spots on the Bulldogs' all-time scoring list. He now has 1,189 career points, 18th-most by a Bulldog in program history.
The Bulldogs will now face No. 1 seed and regular-season champion UNCG in the quarterfinal round of the SoCon Men's Basketball Championship. The Bulldogs and Spartans will tip off at 12 p.m.