Three minutes into Saturday night’s game against mighty Davidson, The Citadel Bulldogs bounded happily to the bench while Wildcats coach Bob McKillop fired off a quick timeout.
The Bulldogs scored the first eight points of the game, and for a brief moment visions of the upset of the year in Southern Conference basketball entered the heads of the 2,015 fans at McAlister Field House.
“We had them on their heels,” Citadel center Mike Groselle said.
It didn’t take long for the Wildcats to restore order. By halftime, Davidson seized a 17-point lead and cruised to a 72-57 victory to clinch at least a share of the SoCon South Division title.
Nik Cochran scored 18 points to pace five Wildcats in double figures as Davidson (19-7, 14-1) won its 10th straight game to clinch the SoCon South’s top seed for the conference tournament.
Groselle scored 21 points to lead the Bulldogs (6-19, 3-12), who have lost four straight.
Davidson has won nine division titles in the past 12 years under McKillop, but few of his 24 Wildcats squads have entered a season with the expectations of this senior-laden team. A 5-6 mark against a tough pre-conference schedule, and a 70-57 loss at Georgia Southern on Jan. 14, sparked some doubts, even among Davidson fans.
But Davidson has answered those questions, winning by an average margin of 18 points during the current 10-game win streak.
“When teams have expectations, no matter how talented, unless they’ve been under that microscope before, it’s a whole new experience,” McKillop said. “I really believe during this winning streak, our team has learned to play to win, and not to play not to lose. That’s been the pivotal turn for us.”
The pivotal turn in this game came early, after The Citadel grabbed that 8-0 lead, forcing a McKillop timeout.
“He wasn’t too mad,” Cochran said. “Well, he wasn’t very happy about it, put it that way. He said to just stick with what we do, tighten up a few things and stick with our game plan. We knew they’d come out aggressively, so we were expecting that.”
After hitting five of its first six shots, The Citadel missed its next 10 shots and went more than 10 minutes without a field goal. Davidson went on a 21-5 run and outscored the Bulldogs 37-12 the rest of the half for a 37-20 lead at the break.
“To hold them like that for the entire game would have been miraculous,” Citadel coach Chuck Driesell said. “When they had their run, we couldn’t score the ball. If we could have, we might have kept it to single digits at the half.”
The Citadel, which got 10 points and 10 rebounds from P.J. Horgan, could get only as close as 11 in the second half, but the Wildcats never pulled away, either. For the Bulldogs, it was a step forward from Thursday’s debacle against Georgia Southern, when they trailed by 32.
“We laid it all on the line, I really think we did,” Groselle said. “But they are a great team, so fluid. You take away one thing, and they have a counter for your counter. They are a really smart team.”