A home game against a team that had lost six straight and nine of 10 seemed just what The Citadel needed Monday night to get its own basketball season back on track.
And with a 4-point lead with just over six minutes to play, the Bulldogs seemed to have that victory within its grasp.
But a pair of Samford freshmen sizzled down the stretch, pacing their team to 29 points in the final six minutes and a 95-86 win before 1,742 fans at McAlister Field House.
Wyatt Walker, a 6-9 freshman, scored 10 of his team-high 22 points during that final run, and 6-7 rookie Matt Rose totaled nine of his 17 as Samford scored on 13 of its final 14 possessions. Walker and Rose combined to make 17 of 25 shots from the field as Samford shot 58 percent for the game.
“We basically got beat by two freshmen,” said Citadel coach Duggar Baucom, whose team lost its third straight to fall to 10-15 overall and 3-9 in the Southern Conference. “And that’s the frustrating part. Walker had his way with us in there, we never would wall up against him. And the ones their guards did miss, he’d clean up.
“It’s definitely disappointing, because that’s a team we need to beat, for the standings and because they came in here struggling.”
Samford (12-14, 3-10) had won just one of 10 games since a 94-74 win over The Citadel on Jan. 5 in Birmingham, Ala. But second-year coach Scott Padgett’s team out-rebounded The Citadel by 43-28, owning a 26-10 edge in points in the paint and 10-2 advantage in second-chance points in the second half.
Twice during Samford’s decisive run, Wyatt rebounded misses and stuck them back in, and he finished with 11 rebounds. Rose, shooting 40 percent from 3-point range for the season, made three straight treys to start Samford’s run, and went 5 of 5 from distance for the game.
“Wyatt Walker was a beast on the boards, and we couldn’t stop him,” said Citadel guard Warren Sledge, who scored 20 points. “It’s a bad job on our part for not rebounding, but credit to them. They went after it, and their freshmen came to play.”
The Citadel’s 6-7 freshman, Zane Najdawi, scored 18 points and blocked four shots, but could manage only three rebounds. Derrick Henry led The Citadel with 22 points, and for the third time this season, 5-9 guard P.J. Boutte led the team in rebounds, this time with five.
“We did 30 minutes of box-out drills yesterday, but it looked like we hadn’t done it in a month,” Baucom said. “We’re always going to be the smaller team, but they just had a little more want-to around the glass.
“That’s my fault, because they just seemed like the hungrier team tonight.”
The Citadel’s offensive numbers weren’t bad, as it shot 42 percent from 3-point range (13 of 31), had 15 assists on 29 baskets (eight from Boutte), and committed just six turnovers.
Baucom’s team will now have to find a way to win on the road, starting at Furman on Thursday. Four of the final six games are away from McAlister, with home games left against ETSU (Feb. 18) and Western Carolina (Feb. 20).
“We still control a lot of our own fate, but we’ve made it pretty hard for ourselves by not holding serve at home,” Baucom said.
• The Citadel set the team’s single-season record for 3-pointers in a season with 294, with at least seven games left ... Famed basketball writer John Feinstein was at the game. He’s working on a series for the Washington Post on the “original five” schools that have never played in the NCAA Tournament -- The Citadel, Army, Northwestern, St. Francis and William & Mary.