Charleston Southern’s bid for its first-ever win in a postseason tournament came up a little short as the Buccaneers lost a hard-fought battle with Southern Miss, 78-71, in the first-round of the NIT in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Southern Miss, one of the nation’s best shooting teams, connected on 56 percent from the field, including a 10-of-19 effort from beyond the arc. The Eagles (26-9) will host Louisiana Tech in a second-round game next week.
Jonathan Mills led five Southern Miss players in double figures with 16 points. The Eagles improved to 13-1 at home this season, 28-1 at home over the last two seasons.
Charleston Southern finishes the season with a 19-13 record, marking the second straight 19-win season for coach Barclay Radebaugh’s Buccaneers. CSU won the regular season title of the Big South Conference with a 12-4 league record.
“We represented Charleston Southern and the Big South Conference the way I expected we would tonight,” said Radebaugh. “We expected to win this game. We were not here just to play. We came to win and our kids had the confidence they could win. We came up a little short but we gave a great, unbelievable effort.”
Sophomore point guard Saah Nimley scored a game-high 24 points, 21 coming in the second half, to lead CSU’s effort. Nimley connected on a career-high seven 3-pointers, including four in the final minutes as CSU rallied from a 70-56 deficit to trail 74-71 with 56 seconds left in the game.
Sophomore Arlon Harper added 18 points and senior Mathiang Muo scored 16 points in his final game as a Buccaneers. CSU shot 38 percent from the field and made 14-of-36 shots from beyond the arc.
“We fought hard, never gave up, but they hit some big shots,” said Harper. “We gave it all we had, just like we have all season. We never lost confidence and we had a shot in the end.”
Charleston Southern jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first two minutes of the game but Southern Miss gained control midway through the first half, taking a 32-19 lead with 8:06 to play. CSU closed the half with a 13-4 run to trail, 36-32, at the half, despite shooting only 33 percent from the floor.
A quick basket to open the second half pulled CSU to within two but the Eagles used an 8-0 run to take a 44-34 lead with 16:55 to play.
A basket and free throw by Nimley made it 46-44 with 14:26 remaining but USM took a 56-49 lead with 10:37 to play in the game.
With CSU trailing 70-56 with 5:19 to play, Nimley went to work, connecting on three consecutive 3-pointers. Paul Gombwer’s three with 2:37 to play cut the margin to four at 72-68.
After Nimley’s final three-pointer made it 74-71, CSU locked down defensively but USM’s Rashard McGill hit his only field goal of the game, a contested step back 17-footer with 19 seconds remaining. CSU missed a shot on its next possession and McGill hit a pair of free throws for the final margin.
“He (McGill) hit a great shot,” said Radebaugh. “With a minute left, we had a chance to win the game and he hit an unbelievable shot. You have to credit Southern Miss.”