In a resurgent Southern Conference, a resurgent Citadel basketball team is in first place — for a few weeks, at least.
The Bulldogs rallied from nine points down for a 79-69 win over Mercer on Saturday at McAlister Field House, winning their SoCon opener and extending their win streak to four games. League play begins in earnest in late December.
Senior Zane Najdawi scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and point guard Lew Stallworth put up a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds as The Citadel improved to 6-2 overall and 1-0 in the SoCon, ranked No. 8 in the country in conference RPI last week.
"I told the guys before the game that if we just go out and focus for 40 minutes and give us a good 40 minutes, you’ll get to lead the league for a month," said Citadel coach Duggar Baucom.
"Our first 20 (minutes) weren’t very pretty, but in the last 20, they showed a lot of grit, toughness and, most importantly, togetherness."
Ross Cummings scored 22 points to lead Mercer (4-4, 0-1).
The Bears led by 33-25 at halftime after The Citadel, coming off a record 3-point shooting performance in a 112-87 win over High Point, hit just 5 of 18 from deep in the first half.
But Najdawi scored five of the Bulldogs' 10 points during a 10-0 run to start the second half. Quayson Williams' layup with 12:18 left tied the game at 44-44, and an Alex Reed dunk highlighted a 6-0 run at that point.
A Najdawi bucket made it 56-46 with 8:20 left, and a Matt Frierson trey gave The Citadel its largest lead at 74-59 with 1:53 to play.
"We had different people making big shots, and that was the awesome thing part of it," Baucom said. "I’m proud of the team. Being down eight at the half and coming out and scoring the first 10 points of the second half was huge. It was kind of a fight from there, but just credit our kids and their character.”
Frierson made 4 of 9 from 3-point range for 14 points, and Connor Kern added 13 points for the Bulldogs, who are off to their best start since 2004-05 under Pat Dennis. Stallworth had his third double-double of the season, and Najdawi now has 1,301 career points, 20 points away from the 10th spot in Citadel history.
The Bulldogs host Johnson and Wales next Wednesday.