WILMINGTON, N.C. – The importance of winning on the road in conference play is something Charleston coach Earl Grant discussed with his team before taking the Trask Coliseum floor against UNC Wilmington on Saturday.
The Cougars open CAA competition with three straight road games, a tough gantlet for the program expected to contend for a second straight league title.
Grant Riller heard his coach’s message loud and clear.
The junior guard dropped a game-high 31 points to pace Charleston in the 73-66 victory over the Seahawks.
In the first 20 minutes, Riller notched 21 of his team’s 37 points, setting an early tone and giving the Cougars (12-2 overall, 1-0 CAA) an advantage they would never relinquish.
“We watched a lot of film on him and we knew that he was a lethal scorer and once he got hot he probably wouldn’t miss too many,” UNCW freshman guard Kai Toews said. “I thought there were times when we did play better D on him, made it tough on him, but he did hit some tough shots. At the end of the day, we’ll live with those tough ones.”
Riller’s biggest contribution came from behind the arc, as he knocked down all three triples he attempted in the first half, followed by another in the second half. The four made three-point baskets tied a season-high for the Orlando native who also hit four against Memphis. It’s the third time this year he’s gone for 30-plus points.
“I usually get harder shots as far as 3-pointers, but they cheated a couple screens. I got open a little bit and once I hit one, my confidence started to go up a little higher,” Riller said.
That early advantage proved to be crucial as the Seahawks (4-10, 0-1) got the margin down to a single-point with 2:07 left to play on Shawn O’Connell’s lay-up.
The Cougars closed the game by outscoring UNCW 6-0, including a jumper from Jarrell Brantley and free throws from Marquise Pointer and Jaylen McManus. Charleston iced the game after a Toews turnover with 38 seconds left.
While it didn’t come easy, Grant was pleased to see his squad gut out the victory. Next week, they’ll have to do it again with games at James Madison and Towson.
I told the guys, ‘Hey, you’ve got to have some road toughness.’ They’ve got us on the road, that’s how they scheduled it and we’ve got to go play the games. This was the first one and we’ll be back on the road next week for two games Thursday and Saturday,” Grant said. “The good thing is we’ll have some time to prepare and we’ll try to put our best foot forward and see if we can put together a plan to give us a chance to be successful.”