Charleston Southern tackled its second consecutive top 20 team on the road Wednesday night, falling to 20th-ranked Baylor, 69-64, in Waco, Texas.
The Buccaneers (2-3) rallied from three 11-point deficits in the final half and had a shot to tie the game with less than 10 seconds left in regulation.
“We really competed a lot harder, and really we were very efficient the last 10 minutes,” Charleston coach Barclay Radebaugh told The Associated Press. “But we’ve got a good team. We’ve got a great group of guys and the next step for us is to win these games. We’ve been in a lot of these games.”
Charleston Southern displayed dramatic improvement defensively in the loss. The Bucs had allowed an average of 94 points per game over their last three games, including 109 points in Sunday’s loss at New Mexico.
CSU limited the Bears to 41 percent shooting in the game, though a size disadvantage proved too much to overcome as Baylor out-rebounded CSU, 43-28, while blocking 11 shots.
Baylor was led by the inside tandem of 7-1 Isaiah Austin and 6-9 Cory Jefferson. Each scored 16 points and combined for the 11 blocks, while also combing for 19 rebounds.
CSU junior guard Will Saunders scored a career-high 16 points, connecting on four three-pointers, while senior guard Sheldon Strickland hit four 3’s and scored 14 points. CSU’s leading scorer for the season, junior point guard Saah Nimley, scored 11 points, six below his season average.
The Bucs shot only 35 percent from the floor but made 12-of-26 three-point attempts. CSU has connected for 65 three-pointers in the first five games of this season.
“I thought we played much better, with more awareness, and we followed our game plan,” Radebaugh said. “We are certainly pleased that we played better, but there are things from an execution standpoint that we can do to get over the hump in these types of games. We simply did not execute well enough to beat a top 20 team. But, we did play hard and we played better.”
After falling behind 8-0 to open the game, Strickland hit a pair of 3’s as part of a 13-1 run to give CSU a 13-9 lead with 14:05 to play in the opening half.
Baylor answered with a 9-0 run to grab control, on its way to a 32-28 halftime lead. CSU shot only 27 percent from the floor, hitting five three-pointers, and Baylor blocked eight shots inside, including a pair of dunk attempts.
Baylor opened up a 43-32 lead four minutes into the second half, but Strickland and Nimley hit three-pointers and CSU trailed, 49-43, with 11:56 remaining in the game.
Trailing 54-43, CSU went on a 12-5 run, sparked by a pair of three-pointers from Saunders, cutting Baylor’s lead to 59-55 with 6:30 to play in the contest.
The Bears, however, were able to hold off the charge and opened the lead back to 11 at 66-55 with four minutes to play. CSU managed to trim the margin to 67-61 with 1:11 left in the game.
Baylor would commit a turnover against pressure defense, and Saunders drilled a long three-pointer with 54 seconds left, making it a one-possession game at 67-64.
Baylor missed a shot in the paint and Nimley had an open look at a game-tying three but missed. Cedrick Bowen rebounded the miss and found Nimley in the corner, but the junior point guard stepped out of bounds with eight seconds left. Baylor’s Kenny Cherry hit a pair of free throws to seal the victory.
“The beauty of playing a difficult schedule is that it exposes weaknesses and allows us an opportunity to improve,” said Radebaugh. “We want to challenge our players and we want to put them in tough situations. It’s going to help us become a better basketball team in the long run.”
CSU returns home to host Trinity College at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.