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CAA basketball teams figure it out: Stop Charleston's Grant Riller, beat the Cougars

Riller UNCW

College of Charleston guard Grant Riller struggled to get open shots against UNC Wilmington in the Cougars' loss Saturday at TD Arena. Al Samuels/C of C athletics 

Grant Riller has seen just about every defense imaginable in his 122 games at the College of Charleston.

They’ve all been designed for one purpose – to stop, or at least slow down, him.

Over the last four seasons, the Orlando, Fla., native has seen his share of double and triple teams and sliced through them with ease. He’s gone up against box-in-one and triangle-in-two defenses, with opposing teams guarding him man-to-man while using a zone defense against his teammates.

Few have succeeded.

With 2,244 career points, Riller is the third-leading active scorer in the NCAA and the second-leading scorer in College of Charleston history.

But what the Cougars faced Saturday in a 72-70 loss to UNC Wilmington confounded Riller and his teammates like never before.

The Seahawks, who had won just one conference game prior to Saturday, had a simple game plan. They were willing to give anyone else on the Cougars' roster a chance to beat them, but not Riller. Rob Burke, UNCW’s interim head coach, designed a defense that left a defender in the paint to cut off any drives to the basket, leaving one or more Cougar shooters wide open for 3-point shots.

“That dude (Riller) can beat anyone in the country if you let him,” Burke, a former Citadel assistant coach, said after the game. “We took a couple of different ideas and combined them. We had nothing to lose, it’s a win-win for us no matter what happened. We were playing with house money.”

The Seahawks used a combination of zone defenses, then altered that by going to a box-in-one and a triangle-in-two on Riller. Every time the 6-3 senior touched the ball, he had two Seahawks defenders in his face.

Charleston was 6 of 33 from 3-point range — Riller made two of six 3-pointers.

“We picked a really bad night to have our worst shooting performance,” said Riller, who finished with 16 points.

A week earlier, William & Mary used a similar scheme to slow down Riller, funneling him into bigger players in the paint. Riller, who has scored at least 10 points in 49 consecutive games, finished with 11 hard-earned points in a 67-56 loss to the Tribe. The Cougars were dismal from long range, making just five of 20 3-pointers.

"We wanted to crowd him, not give him space to get going downhill," said William & Mary coach Dane Fischer. "He’s good enough where he can go get 20 points just making the plays he makes. We wanted to guard him with five guys and pack the paint. We wanted him to make him work.”

The Cougars (12-9, 6-3 in CAA) are at the midway point of their Colonial Athletic Association schedule as they head into Thursday night's matchup against James Madison. Charleston has lost three of its last four conference games, two of which can be directly traced back to defenses that were solely focused on shutting down Riller.

With the success that UNC Wilmington and William & Mary had recently, College of Charleston coach Earl Grant knows the Cougars will see similar defenses during the last six weeks of the regular season.

“Give those teams credit, they threw the kitchen sink at us and it paid off for them,” Grant said. “Those defenses worked because we didn’t make shots. If we make a couple of shots, especially against Wilmington, then the defense didn’t work. It’s really as simple as that. We had some beautiful wide-open looks that we didn’t knock down, and that’s very uncharacteristic because we're a good shooting team.”

Grant said he’s not about to change his offense because of the last four games. The Cougars spent much of the week making sure players are not settling for 3-point shots, especially early in the shot clock.

“The solution is pretty simple. We’ve got to make some shots and make more basketball plays,” Grant said. “If we’ve got a two-on-one advantage in the paint because of what they are doing with Grant, we need to execute and make a basketball play. Drive to the rim, make them defend two guys and finish. I’m confident that we’ll make more shots if we see those same defenses again.”

Riller has been one of the most efficient scorers in college basketball over the past two seasons. According to the most recent NCAA statistics, Riller is the 12th most efficient player in the country. In a 79-76 loss to Northeastern, Riller recorded the program’s first triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

“Grant has got to have some thick skin, really have rhino skin,” his coach said. “He’s in the same boat as a lot of great players, great scorers, are in. People are going to pay a lot of attention to him when he’s on the floor. Teams are going to continue to scheme against him, and he has to continue to make the plays he’s been making. Grant has been making the right decisions, getting his teammates involved. It’s OK for him to get 10 assists.”

Reach Andrew Miller at 843-937-5599. Follow him on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC

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