College of Charleston 71, Tennessee 65

Critics may downplay the importance of the College of Charleston’s 71-65 win Wednesday night over a struggling Tennessee team before a sellout crowd of 5,137 at TD Arena.

Still, it was a victory over a Southeastern Conference school that could help the Cougars sell themselves down the road for a postseason tournament. Charleston also has a win over Clemson of the ACC and travels next week to No. 4 Louisville.

The Cougars won their fifth straight game and 14th in a row at TD Arena and improved to 8-1. It was Charleston’s second win over the Volunteers (3-6) in as many seasons.

And much of the credit for Wednesday’s win goes to Tennessee native Antwaine Wiggins. The 6-7 fifth-year senior, often criticized for his shooting, played a near-perfect game with 24 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Wiggins was 10 of 12 from the field and 3 of 4 from 3-point distance.

“This meant a lot. Coming out of high school, I wanted to go to Tennessee when I was younger,” said Wiggins, who matched his career high in scoring.

It wasn’t a one-man effort.

Junior guard Andrew Lawrence added 14 points, four assists and five steals for Charleston. Anthony Stitt finished with nine points, while Trent Wiedeman, Adjehi Baru and reserve Matt Sundberg all scored eight points.

Tennessee was led by Jordan McRae, who had 19 points.

It didn’t look like it was going to be much fun for Charleston in the early portions of the game with Tennessee steadily pulling out to a 13-point lead, 28-15. But the Cougars battled back over the final 5½ minutes, going on a 16-8 burst and trailed 37-33 at the half.

Charleston got within a field goal early in the second half but had a tough time getting over the hump. But a 13-0 run beginning about the 15-minute mark moved Charleston into a somewhat comfortable lead, and with a loud crowd showing its support, the Cougars were able to thwart Tennessee’s comeback effort.

Charleston led by 14 points with six minutes left and was up by nine with three minutes remaining. The Cougars were able to avoid a collapse and hung on, despite hitting only 4 of 9 free throws in the final two minutes.

“We were struggling in the first half, but coach always tells us to keep playing,” Wiggins said. “They were on a big run. We had to rebound and play defense. We did that the second half.”

College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins called the game a dogfight.

“They took it to us. We were not ourselves,” Cremins said. “Antwaine kept us in the game. He did a great job of letting the game come to him.”

Cremins and Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said the Cougars’ move to a 2-3 zone in the second half made a big difference.

“I thought our guys were more stagnant tonight. We weren’t passing and cutting through (the zone),” Martin said. “Wiggins did a really good job of attacking the rim. … He’s a talented player.”

Cremins said the zone gave the Cougars “the lead we should have finished with.”

“I appreciate Tennessee coming here. They brought out a great atmosphere,” said Cremins, whose team faces Charleston Southern at 6 p.m. Saturday at TD Arena.

“It was a great atmosphere. I can’t say enough about the fans.”