Just when you thought our College of Charleston-Citadel basketball rivalry was in the deep freeze, along comes beach weather in January and a bunch of determined Bulldogs.
The Citadel entered Monday night's game at McAlister Field House with a 10-game losing streak. Odds of a good, intense, competitive ballgame were no better than a surprise appearance by a guy juggling flaming sticks and throwing Frisbees.
Hey, what do you know? Some halftime acts have crazy skills, and the College of Charleston's 73-69 victory was that rare outcome with positives for both sides.
The young Bulldogs — two seniors, no juniors — have a future brighter than the forecast a few weeks ago.
“We're working so hard at practice,” do-it-all Citadel senior center Mike Groselle said. “It's going to pay off for us.”
It's a challenging season, even by Bulldog standards.
But Groselle had help Monday night.
The Citadel, physical and relentless, didn't go winless since a Nov. 17 victory over Union playing this way.
Vintage Citadel spirit rattled the rafters, with properly obnoxious cadets occupying seats behind both baselines.
Nice for The Citadel going forward to have taped proof of quality basketball played against a good team.
The College of Charleston is a true Southern Conference championship contender, 6-0 on the road and aiming for the ultimate road trip at the SoCon Tournament in Asheville.
“We're really battle tested now,” Cougars senior guard Andrew Lawrence said. “We've been to a lot of different environments.”
It's just that the Cougars are hard to watch for long parts of strange games.
This win over a 3-12 team paddling near the bottom of the national NCAA Division I computer rankings was not secure until Lawrence dropped two free throws with 11.4 seconds remaining.
The Cougars have taken to head coach Doug Wojcik's emphasis on rebounding and defense. At times, however, they appear to have more trouble adjusting to the new system than foes have figuring out the remodeled Cougars.
Scoring has been a problem at times. On Monday, The Citadel strategically and effectively limited Cougars assists.
It helps that Trent Wiedeman is back after missing nearly a month with an ankle injury. Lawrence was out for the Auburn and Anderson losses.
Still, in compiling a 12-5 record, the Cougars have proven they can lose any game (Division II Anderson) or go way out West to Waco and beat big, bad Baylor.
Last week was the capsule version, a home loss to so-so Samford and a 27-point thumping of Chattanooga.
The Cougars are fully capable of losing a first-round SoCon tournament game, bowing out of the league ungracefully on their way to the Colonial Athletic Association.
But give this team a chance to peak at the right time, and you might not be disappointed. As Georgia Southern's Monday night victory over Davidson shows, the SoCon is there for the taking.
Before Asheville, the Cougars must win (including some home games) to secure SoCon tournament seeding required of a proud program bent on winning its first NCAA tournament trip since 1999.
That's still the standard, a goal fans cling to with sincerity that defies the gravity of a second decade in the March wilderness.
College of Charleston players seem to get it. Asked what he thought of the Citadel rivalry, sophomore Adjehi Baru told the assembled media, “I just think about winning.”
Sitting next to Baru, a veteran player with British Olympic team experience smiled and nodded.
“What a great answer,” Lawrence said.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @sapakoff.
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