THE CITADEL 66, WESTERN CAROLINA 52
Bobby Cremins this week called The Citadel "the most improved team in the Southern Conference," and the Bulldogs backed up his claim Thursday night.
Against another "most improved" candidate, The Citadel blasted SoCon North Division leader Western Carolina, 66-52, before 1,133 fans at McAlister Field House, sending the Bulldogs into Saturday's clash with Cremins and his College of Charleston Cougars with a modicum of momentum.
"It's exciting to play the Cougars, no matter how we are doing," said guard Zach Urbanus, who scored 16 points to match center Demetrius Nelson. "The most exciting thing is that we are competitive in the league this year, so that makes it a much bigger game than it has been in the past."
The Bulldogs (9-10, 4-4) have won two of their last three heading into their 3 p.m. game Saturday with the Cougars at McAlister.
Against Western Carolina (9-8, 4-3), The Citadel posted its largest margin of victory against a SoCon team in coach Ed Conroy's three seasons, and in the second half played its finest stretch of basketball this season.
The Citadel shot 70 percent after halftime while holding the Catamounts to 37.5 percent shooting and 24 points. Western Carolina scored 37 points fewer than it did in its previous game, an 89-75 win over Georgia Southern, and was held to season-low numbers in points, field goals (21) and 3-pointers (4 of 15).
"We struggled," said Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter, whose team surrendered 19 turnovers, 13 of them on Citadel steals. "But credit The Citadel. Their game plan with guarding our players was pretty accurate, and they kept us off the boards in the second half."
The Bulldogs got back on defense and shared the wealth, with 17 assists on 25 baskets. Nelson, the recipient of "shot-pass" lobs in the paint, hit 7 of 9 from the floor, while Urbanus was 5 of 7. He sank three 3-pointers and reserves Cosmo Morabbi and Jonathan Brick had two each as the Bulldogs made 7 of 12 from behind the arc.
"Putting defense and offense together, that, in stretches, was as well as we've played this year," Conroy said. "I loved our energy on the defensive end, deflecting balls and getting some steals. And on offense, we really, really shared the ball, and that was great to see."
Sophomore guard Cameron Wells (10 points) had five assists, Urbanus and Austin Dahn four each and Brick and Morabbi two apiece. That ball movement fueled a 27-7 run, foiled Western Carolina's 1-3-1 zone and broke open a 35-35 game in the second half. Brick lobbed for Nelson, and Urbanus slipped passes to Wells and Bryan Streeter as the run hit 16-2 and the lead 51-37 with 7:54 left.
Urbanus and Brick sank 3-pointers and Nelson sealed it with a baseline jumper at 3:16, giving him 1,000 career points and the Bulldogs a 20-point lead at 62-42.
After slow starts against Furman and Wofford, The Citadel started much better against Western Carolina, jumping to a 14-8 lead before a late lull led to a 28-27 halftime deficit.
"Even though we were just down one at halftime, I was as frustrated as I've been all year," Conroy said. "I knew we were so close. I told them we just have to start sharing the ball, and if we do, someone will really pay."
Now come the Cougars, who have won 13 straight against the Bulldogs.
"I hope our guys see progress," Conroy said. "We came off the road and had three good days of practice, and that really paid off. Hopefully, we can carry that on whoever the opponent is. But emotions will be running high on Saturday, I'm sure."
With 1,001 points, Nelson is the 25th Citadel player to score 1,000 points in a career ... Brandon Giles was the only WCU player in double figures with 11 points ... John Brown had seven rebounds, two steals and a block and rimmed out what would have been a monster dunk on an inbounds play ... The Citadel's 61-percent shooting from the field and 58.3-percent on 3-pointers were season-best marks.