College of Charleston appeared to have finally figured it out this season.
After dispatching William & Mary by 18 points Thursday night to take over sole possession of first place in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Cougars appeared to have finally gotten off of what has been a roller-coaster season.
But a lackluster shooting night doomed the Cougars at home – again – this season.
Marcus Sheffield tied a career-high with 31 points to go with 12 rebounds to lead Elon past College of Charleston 72-65 Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 5,108 at TD Arena – the 10th-largest crowd in the facilities’ history.
The Cougars (15-10, 9-4 CAA) are now a half-game back of Hofstra for first place in the conference. The Phoenix improved to 9-17 and 5-8.
The home losses have baffled the Cougars' coaching staff. Against Northeastern, the Cougars gave up two 16-point leads in each half to fall 79-76 last month. Last weekend, the Cougars lost to UNC Wilmington, the last-place team in the CAA, with just two conference victories. While the Phoenix have improved under first-year coach Mike Schrage, the Cougars had won eight of the last 10 games in the series and had not lost in Charleston in 2015.
Charleston is just 8-5 at TD Arena this year, including a 4-3 mark in conference play.
There were nearly a dozen NBA scouts courtside Thursday night at TD Arena to watch two of the best mid-major players – College of Charleston’s…
“A lot of times winning can make you weak and losing makes you stronger because it hurts so bad,” said College of Charleston coach Earl Grant. “Sometimes we haven’t handled winning or losing as well as I’d have liked. We played William & Mary Thursday night, had a great win, played really well and came up short today. Sometimes if you are not careful winning can make you weak a little bit, but give Elon credit.”
Charleston senior guard Grant Riller is convinced that Thursday's big win had no ill effect on the Cougars' performance.
“No hangover at all from the William & Mary game,” Riller said. “We celebrated Thursday night and got back to work on Friday. In this league, you can lose to anybody. Elon just played hard and got the win.”
Charleston shot just 37.7 percent from the floor and made only 7 of 23 3-point attempts.
“Our spacing wasn’t always there, and we had a couple of questionable shots,” Riller said.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Phoenix just outworked the Cougars, something the program had prided itself on since Grant arrived on campus six years ago.
“The thrill of victory and agony of defeat,” the Cougars coach said. “You have to give Elon credit. Some of the plays they made, the effort that they gave on certain plays, sometimes you just have to shake their hand and give them credit. Certainly disappointing that we didn’t win the game. We had a great crowd. We played with some effort, but Elon did the things, made the hustle plays, you have to make to win games like this.”
A sentiment shared by Riller.
“They got offensive rebounds, they got all the 50-50 balls, so at the end of the day, I thought they played a little bit harder than we did,” Riller said. “They definitely hit some more shots than we did.”
Sheffield, a Stanford graduate transfer, had a career night, which didn’t hurt either. He scored 15 straight points for Elon as the Phoenix built a double-digit lead in the first half.
“Sheffield is a big-time transfer, and he had a big impact today with the way he played,” Grant said.
The Cougars cut the gap to 32-30 at halftime and even took a 36-32 lead early in the second half. But a 13-2 run over six-minute stretch by the Phoenix put the game out of reach.
College of Charleston’s Osinachi Smart recorded the first double-double of his career, finishing with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a blocked shot in 19 minutes.
“Osinachi played a very spirited game,” Grant said. “Osi did a really good job of protecting the rim. We need to play like that more often. Hopefully, he can build on that down the stretch.”
The 6-8 Smart was also 4 of 5 from the free throw line.
“I just wait for my number to be called and every time I get into the game, my teammates expect me to bring that energy, and that’s what I try to do,” Smart said.
The Cougars will head out on the road for two games against Hofstra (Thursday) and Northeastern (Saturday), next week.
Charleston’s matchup against the Pride will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network at 7 p.m.
“We’ve got five games left, so we’ve got to keep fighting, scratching and clawing and figure out ways to get better,” Grant said.