CONWAY — Charleston Southern reached the semifinals of the Big South Conference basketball tournament Thursday, but it wasn’t easy.
Despite a poor-shooting performance, the Bucs managed to fight off Winthrop, 54-47, to improve to 18-11 on the season. Charleston Southern will play VMI at noon Saturday. The tournament championship game is noon Sunday.
For the first time this season, CSU won a game in which its opponent had a better shooting percentage. Winthrop shot 32 percent to CSU’s 28 percent.
The Buccaneers were solid from the free-throw line, connecting on 19 of 21 attempts. Charleston Southern was held to 20 points below its season average by the top defensive team in the Big South.
Senior Mathiang Muo scored 15 points and hauled in 11 rebounds to lead the Buccaneers. Muo hit five 3-pointers in the game. CSU outrebounded Winthrop, 42-28, and had 16 second-chance points.
“We didn’t shoot well but we played pretty well overall,” CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh said. “We did a great job at the line and we did a great job on the boards.
“We’ve got to shoot better, but we’re still around. It’s tournament basketball. Nothing is easy and every possession is so important and I thought we executed well late in the game.”
Sophomore guard Arlon Harper added 11 points. He and sophomore guard Saah Nimley combined to make only 3 of 21 shots on the day. The pair combined to average 30 points per game during the regular season but scored only 18 Thursday.
“Winthrop really is a tough defensive team and we knew they would not make it easy for us,” said Harper. “We found a way to win and that’s what it’s all about in the tournament. We’re moving on to Saturday and that’s the goal right now.”
Charleston Southern missed its first five shots and trailed, 7-2, early on. Muo hit three consecutive 3-pointers to give CSU a 14-13 lead and the Bucs opened up a 31-22 halftime advantage.
The shooting woes were worse in the second-half as CSU managed only six field goals, but the Bucs still managed to hold off the Eagles.
“We never could put them away, which is a credit to them,” said Radebaugh. “We’d go up eight and could never get up 10 or 11. Tournament play is tough and Winthrop played as hard as we did.”
The biggest shot of the game came in the final minutes when Muo’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave CSU a 52-46 lead with 2:30 to play. CSU got several stops defensively and Matt Kennedy sealed the victory with a pair of free throws with nine seconds remaining.
“Mathiang’s 3-pointer was a huge shot,” said Radebaugh. “He wants those shots and we want him to take those shots. He misses some but he makes some and we want the shooters to shoot. It was a clutch shot.”
VMI advanced with a 90-86 victory over Longwood on Thursday.
“It feels like a tournament now,” said Radebaugh. “We sure didn’t want to get back on the bus and come home. We get a day off and we play Saturday. I know we will be ready.”