A valiant come-from-behind effort came up a free throw short Wednesday night as Charleston Southern dropped a 78-76 Big South Conference game to Gardner-Webb.
Junior guard Arlon Harper was fouled on a potential game-winning 3-point shot with 1.3 seconds remaining in the game and Charleston Southern trailing, 77-75. After making the first free throw, Harper missed the next two attempts, allowing the visiting Bulldogs to hold on to a first-place tie with Coastal Carolina in the South Division.
Charleston Southern dropped to 12-16 overall and 6-9 in Big South play while Gardner-Webb improved to 17-13 overall and 10-5 in league contests. CSU has lost three of its last four games and Wednesday marked the team's fourth home conference loss of the season.
CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh refused to lay blame on Harper for the loss. The Buccaneers trailed by as many as 18 points in the game and led only once, 2-0, in the first 15 seconds of the game.
"If anybody thinks those two free throws at the end cost us the game, they don't know much about the game of basketball," said Radebaugh. "I can show you on tape 50 mistakes that we made that cost us a point here and a point there. We made a ton of mistakes. To think those free throws cost us the game, it's simply not the case.
"Basically, it came down to me not having this team ready to play. If we're going to blame someone, blame me. It's on me. I am the head coach and that's my job. We got down 18 points, at home, on senior night. That's my fault."
Harper finished the game with 17 points, leading four players in double figures. Senior Matt Kennedy, playing the final home game of his CSU career, scored 16 points, while fellow senior Sheldon Strickland and junior forward Paul Gombwer each scored 14 points.
Forward Jerome Hill led all scorers with 23 points, but five players reached double figures for the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs shot 50 percent from the field for the game.
The Bucs held an early 2-0 lead to open the game, but the rest of the first half belonged to Gardner-Webb. Hill scored 13 points in the opening half and the Bulldogs gradually opened up an 18-point lead at 36-18 with 5:45 remaining. Gardner-Webb shot 53 percent from the floor in the half.
Charleston Southern managed a mini-rally to close the half, using a 16-9 run to close within 11 at 45-34 at the break.
CSU opened the second half with three buckets in the first 2:12 and Harper's 3-pointer made it 47-43 three minutes into the half.
After the Bulldogs pushed the lead back to 10 at 53-43, CSU whittled the margin back to four at 57-53 with 10:45 to play.
Three minutes later, Paul Gombwer scored inside and the Bucs were within three at 63-60. Strickland's 3-pointer made it 64-63 with 7:18 remaining, but CSU had three straight empty possessions and the Bulldogs scored six quick points to go back up seven, 70-63, with 5:23 to play.
Kennedy sparked a late CSU rally, draining a long 3-pointer with 2:11 left to bring CSU to within a point at 73-72.
After Hill scored inside for a three-point advantage, Harper hit a step-back 3-pointer with 1:06 remaining to tie the game at 75.
CSU shot 65 percent from the field in the second half and finished at 53.7 percent for the game.
"We did some good things in the second half, but we really dug ourselves a hole in the first half. That was very disappointing," said Radebaugh. "To battle back and put ourselves in a position to win is a credit to our guys."
CSU will close out the regular season at Coastal Carolina on Saturday, hoping to hit next week's Big South Conference tournament on a roll.
"This team has battled and fought all year," said Radebaugh. "We're in every game. We just have not finished games. This team has been able to bounce back often this year. This team has been resilient and tough. We have a good group of kids. They will play hard."