Charleston Southern is not quite ready for its basketball season to end.
The Buccaneers rallied from a 15-point deficit to claim an 81-71 win over Campbell in the first round of the Big South Conference tournament, earning a spot in the tournament's quarterfinals on Friday night against host and South Division regular season champion Coastal Carolina.
Charleston Southern, picked to win the league's title during the preseason, limped to a 6-10 conference mark during the season. But, on Wednesday night at the HTC Center in Conway, the Buccaneers won their first game of the season after trailing at halftime, snapping an 0-for-12 skid.
Junior guard Arlon Harper scored 20 points and junior guard Will Saunders added 18, including 13 points in the decisive second half. Senior point guard Sheldon Strickland scored 14 points and Matt Kennedy hit for 13.
Led by junior forward Paul Gombwer's 13 boards, the Bucs (13-17) out-rebounded the Camels (12-20), 41-26.
"I've said it all year, this basketball team will not fold, they will not quit," said CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh. "It's not always pretty, but this team gives great effort every time they step on the floor. It's simply not in their makeup to give up.
"Our will to win tonight was as high as it's been in a long time. They just were not ready to see the season end and they played with a different fire in the second half. It certainly was a great victory for our team."
Eight of CSU's 10 conference losses during the regular season were by single digits, including four losses by four points or less. Late-game execution issues have plagued the Bucs often, but not on Wednesday night.
"We defended, we rebounded and we executed offensively down the stretch," said Radebaugh. "Without our starting point guard (Saah Nimley) for these last nine or 10 games, we have had to change the way we play. It has taken us some time to adjust, but we have played really good basketball over the last 10 days. We're past the adjustment phase and into the getting better phase."
Campbell connected on 11 3-pointers in its regular-season victory over Charleston Southern a month ago, and did plenty of damage from beyond the arc in Wednesday's meeting. The Camels hit eight 3-pointers in the first half and shot 56 percent from the floor overall to build a 42-33 halftime lead.
Guard Reco McCarter scored 14 of his team-high 19 points in the opening half.
CSU opened the game hitting six of its first 12 shots from the floor but went cold and trailed by as many as 15 points (39-24) in the first half. Harper finished the first half with 14 points as the Buccaneers finished at 44 percent shooting in the half overall.
Campbell, however, cooled considerably in the second half, shooting only 35 percent. The Camels finished with a first-round, tournament-record 13 3-pointers, but connected on only two of their last 10 attempts.
CSU, on the other hand, got the long stroke flowing as Saunders hit three bombs and Strickland added two. The Buccaneers whittled away at the lead until tying the game at 64 on Strickland's 3-pointer with 7:50 to play. Strickland hit a pair of free throws 15 seconds later to give CSU its first lead since taking a 2-0 advantage to start the game.
Charleston Southern would not trail again, hitting seven of nine free throw attempts in the final three minutes while Campbell continued to struggle. Gombwer scored CSU's final five points to finish with seven for the game, capping CSU's 48-point second-half effort. CSU made six of its nine 3-pointers in the second half.
Looking ahead to Friday, CSU would seem a good matchup for Coastal Carolina. CSU beat Coastal by 12 points at home this season while losing, 63-61, at Coastal in the regular-season finale last Saturday.
"We have great respect for that program and they won the South Division so we know they are a quality basketball team," said Radebaugh. "They are on their home court and it will be a big-time environment. As a team, we feel we can compete with every team in this league. We have competed with every team. Hopefully we can play well and put ourselves in a position to advance."
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