CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern rallied back from an 18-point first half deficit to draw even on an Arlon Harper three-pointer with 1:06 remaining, but a Jerome Hill layup with 33 seconds left was enough to provide the difference for Gardner-Webb in a 78-76 win over the Bucs at the Buc Dome on Wednesday night.
CSU (12-16, 6-9 BSC) had two late chances to pull out the victory on its senior night. Harper was fouled on a three-point attempt with one second left and stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to tie or give CSU the lead. The Bucs' junior guard hit the first, but rimmed out on the second and left the third short. Gardner-Webb's (17-13, 10-5 BSC) Donta Harper rebounded the second miss and converted one of two free throws to put the Runnin' Bulldogs up by two. CSU's Matt Kennedy almost provided a miraculous ending, as his 70-footer clanged off the glass and front rim at the buzzer.
The Bucs played with grit and toughness in fighting their way out of a 36-18 first half hole, but the slow start proved too much to overcome.
"First, congratulations to Gardner-Webb," CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh said afterward. "I thought they came in here and played terrific, and you saw why they are 10-5 in our league. They played very physical and hard. They got off to a big lead in the first half and our guys had to get in "fight back" mode."
"Basically, it came down to I didn't have the team ready to play in the first half," Radebaugh continued. "We got down substantially in the first half. We didn't play with much energy. We made some adjustments at halftime and certainly played much better in the second half."
Harper led CSU with 17 points, while seniors Kennedy and Sheldon Strickland chipped in 16 and 14 and made clutch shots during the Bucs' second half surge. Junior Paul Gombwer added a double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds, pacing CSU to a 32-24 rebounding edge. The Bucs had no answer for Hill, who established position on the low block throughout the night to tally a game-high 23 points. Four others reached double figures scoring for the Runnin' Bulldogs, who shot an even 50 percent from the floor.
CSU honored its seven seniors (Mitchell Deter, Greg Dorleus, Alhaji Fullah, Matt Kennedy, Thomas Odom, Sheldon Strickland and student manager Bradford Hamilton) prior to tipoff, and brought another capacity Buc Dome crowd to its feet with a spirited second half effort.
CSU trimmed its halftime deficit to 45-34 with a late flurry, and kept momentum on its side early in the second half with a 9-2 run to close within four. Kennedy started the spurt with a jumper, and Harper buried a corner triple to make it a four-point game at the 16:56 mark.
GWU built its advantage back to ten three times, the last coming via an Onzie Branch jumper for a 57-47 cushion with 13:06 remaining. CSU began to steadily chip away at the deficit by scoring six straight points. Gombwer jumpstarted an active second half for himself with four straight points, and Strickland drove the lane for a layup to slice the Bucs' deficit to 57-53 with 10:58 left.
After GWU pushed its lead back to eight, CSU countered with a 10-3 charge to come within a point, as Strickland and Gombwer provided the jolt. Gombwer converted a spinning shot off the glass in the lane, and Strickland knocked down two big treys to make the score 64-63. GWU again answered back, with a Branch three-point play providing a seven-point margin at the 5:23 mark.
Hibbert's three from in front of the GWU bench had the Runnin' Bulldogs up six with 3:38 left before CSU made its final push with an 8-2 run to knot the score at 75 apiece. Kennedy had a layup and swished a three from the left wing to whittle GWU's lead to 73-72 with 2:11 remaining. Following a Hill layup, Harper connected on a contested three from the top of the key over Strange to tie the game at 75 before the dramatic final sequence.
Alhaji Fullah got the Buccaneers going at the outset, sailing through a jump hook on the baseline for an early 2-0 lead. Gardner-Webb answered on a Hill jumper inside the paint and the Runnin' Bulldogs connected on all four of their three-point tries in the first half. Strange connected on a pair, the latter from the right corner, to put GWU ahead 12-8 with 14:39 to play.
Arlon Harper followed with a pair of free throw attempts on the next possession, but the Runnin' Bulldogs rattled off eight in a row to go up double-digits at 20-10 with 11:50 to play. GWU would forge a lead as large as 18 courtesy of a 9-0 run capped by a pair of baskets by Tyrell Nelson, giving the Runnin' Bulldogs a 36-18 lead with 5:45 to play in the opening stanza.
CSU rallied back as Kennedy sparked the offense with his first three-pointer of the game from deep in the left corner and Gombwer banked a jumper off the glass from ten feet out as the Bucs took some momentum into intermission. Cedrick Bowen brought the crowd to its feet with a rebound tip-slam at the 2:58 mark and Ty'Quan Bitting followed with a layup to narrow the CSU deficit to 40-29 moments later.
Will Saunders kept the Bucs within reach with a deep triple from the top of the key and Harper closed out the first half scoring with a pair of free throws as Charleston Southern went into the break trailing 45-34.
CSU wraps up the regular season Saturday at Coastal Carolina. Tipoff at the HTC Center is scheduled for 2 p.m. The Big South Tournament begins Wednesday, March 5 at the HTC Center.