Drexel scored the first basket of the game and held the lead over the College of Charleston for exactly 22 seconds.
After that, it was pretty much all Cougars.
Grant Riller scored a game-high 24 points and Jarrell Brantley added 16 points and seven rebounds to lead College of Charleston past Drexel 73-61 in the quarterfinals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament on Sunday night before a crowd of 4,040 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The third-seeded Cougars (24-8) will face No. 2 seed Northeastern (21-10), an easy 80-59 winner over UNC Wilmington, in the semifinals Monday night at 8:30 p.m. The game will be a rematch of last year’s tournament finals, which the Cougars won 83-76 in overtime.
The Cougars, the reigning CAA Tournament champions, appeared to come out a little nervous in the opening minutes before settling down and controlling the run of play for most of the game. It was just the second game in the last 14 days for the Cougars, which might have accounted for the slow start.
“We had to knock a little bit of rust off, and the coaches tried to prepare us for that, but once we go live it’s a little bit different,” Brantley said. “I gotta admit, I was a little nervous, but I thought once we got it going, we started to get some flow offensively.”
College of Charleston coach Earl Grant agreed, adding that the Cougars' defense was in top form from the opening tipoff.
“That’s the second game for us in 14 days, and that’s a long time between games,” Grant said. “We were able to get some rest and work on some things in practice, but that’s different from playing in a game, especially one in March. We came out with great intensity and defended really well. I was proud of the way we defended all night.”
One of the keys for the Cougars was the play of their bench, which chipped in 24 points, including 12 points and seven rebounds from Dayton transfer Sam Miller. Charleston’s bench outscored the Dragons’ subs 24-8.
“One of the reasons our practices are so competitive is because of our bench players,” Grant said. “I’m not surprised, and the guys sitting next to me (Brantley and Riller) are not surprised by what they did tonight. They’ve really helped us get better the last couple of months. Sam is a very talented player, very skilled, and he’s a tough guy to guard because of his skillset.”
After the Dragons (13-19) hit the opening bucket of the game, Charleston quickly built an early double-digit lead behind a 16-1 run. A Brevin Galloway 3-pointer, a Brantley 3 and a couple of layups from Riller and the Cougars were off and running.
Riller’s jumper gave the Cougars a 16-3 advantage with 12:20 to play in the opening half. The Cougars led by as many as 16 points in the opening half and took a 38-24 advantage at halftime.
“We did a better job as the half went on,” Brantley said.
The Dragons didn’t go away, and after a Brantley layup to start the second half, Drexel made five of its first six shots and cut the gap to 42-35 on James Butler’s short jumper with 16:50 to play. Charleston squandered two second-half double digits leads against the Dragons during the regular season. Drexel defeated the Cougars 79-78 on Jan. 10 on three Troy Harper free throws with one second to play at TD Arena.
“It was the flow of the game and everyone is going to make a run,” Riller said. “They kind of punched us in the mouth to start the second half, but I thought we did a good job of getting off the mat, settling down and finding a way to close the game out.”
A 3-pointer from Zep Jasper, another layup from Riller and 3 from Miller and the Cougars' lead was back to 14 points with just over eight minutes to play.
“I thought it was a 50-50 finish for us,” Riller said. “We committed a couple of turnovers, but at the same time we were able to finish the game. We kind of struggle with them because of their pressure, but I think we did a good job hitting our free throws and finishing.”
The Cougars split their regular-season matchups against the Huskies with each team winning on their home courts. Northeastern’s roster will be bolstered by the return of Shawn Occeaus, who has missed large chunks of the season with a lower leg injury.
“Northeastern’s a good team and they match up well against us,” Brantley said. “I’m sure if we stick to the game plan and play to our standards, we’ll be fine.”