CONWAY — For the first time since 2005, the Charleston Southern men's basketball team is playing for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Buccaneers will take on Liberty in the finals of the Big South Conference tournament, with the winner receiving the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. CSU (19-11) advanced to the finals with a 71-65 win over VMI on Saturday at the HTC Center in Conway.
Sophomore guard Arlon Harper scored a career-high 33 points to help CSU rally from a five-point halftime deficit.
“I'm real thankful for the progression of our program. (today), we're on national TV (ESPN2),” CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh said. “Now that we're this close, it would be awfully nice to win. We've gotten better every year and really excited about that for our program, our team and for our university.”
Harper's effort included five 3-pointers and a perfect 8-of-8 performance from the free-throw line. Sophomore point guard Saah Nimley added 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. CSU's bench outscored VMI, 24-6, and the Bucs held Big South player of the year Stan Okoye to 12 points.
VMI jumped out to a 6-0 lead on a pair of Rodney Glasgow 3-pointers. Glasgow finished with 31 points. His 3-pointer with 1:04 left in the first half gave VMI a 30-25 lead.
As much damage as Glasgow did in the first half, Harper did in the second half. His 3-pointer with 16:31 to play in the game gave CSU a lead it would never relinquish.
Harper hit another 3-pointer with 8:55 to play to give CSU its largest lead at 57-47. VMI kept the game in single digits for the rest of the way. Glasgow gave the Keydets hope with a 3-pointer, cutting CSU's lead to 67-64 with 25 seconds remaining.
The Bucs sealed the victory with four free throws in the final seconds.
“It was certainly a tale of two halves,” Radebaugh said. “I told our guys at halftime we're going to win this game because we can't play any worse. We were playing with just incredible effort (in the first half) and shot after shot didn't go in. As long as we kept executing like that, we were going to be fine. I was so pleased with them because we had a chance to go way down there. We had a chance to go way down and they kept their poise.”
Charleston Southern faces upset-minded Liberty in the finals. The Flames knocked off Gardner-Webb, 65-62, to reach the finals. Liberty was the fifth-place finisher in the North Division during the regular season.
CSU beat Liberty in their only meeting this season, 79-75.
“It's just going to be tough,” said Radebaugh of today's title game. “Liberty is so big and tall and is a good defensive team. We were able to shake some things loose today, because of the pace. It's going to be hard. We're going to have execute well, we're going to have to knock in some open shots. And if we do that, then we're going to be fine. Because we know for two games in a row, we've defended.”