CHARLESTON, S.C. – At the end of an 18-point outburst in the first half of his first conference tournament game, Christian Keeling had a message for his point guard as Charleston Southern trotted to the halftime locker room.
"He was like 'appreciate you for carrying us in the first half,'" Keeling recalled of Armel Potter's thanks. "I just looked at him and said 'I know you're gonna carry us in the second half. I got you.' He kept it 100. I look up to him as the leader on our team. He's our point guard so when he go, we go."
Potter proceeded to go for 13 second half points, propelling the Bucs past Longwood and on to a quarterfinal clash at top-seeded Winthrop tonight. Following an ugly 0-for-5 effort in the game's opening 20 minutes, Potter collected himself along with a little help from his backcourt mate and CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh.
"They stuck with me and I just told myself to calm down," said Potter, who scored a career-high 28 points in last year's Big South Championship against Longwood. "It's just another game. I feel like I came out there – I don't want to say too ready but I was just moving a little too fast. That's not my game. The second half, I just came out confident and aggressive and it worked out."
The game was in some ways emblematic of Potter's season. After an up-and-down patch through the first half of the year, he appears to be peaking at an opportune time. Potter has scored in double figures in seven straight games and ten of his last 11, teaming with Keeling and junior Cortez Mitchell to give the Bucs a potent trio. A year after shouldering a heavy load with aplomb to earn a spot on the All-Big South Freshman Team, Potter is learning to play alongside better talent.
"I'm starting to figure things out and how to play with certain players," said Potter, who ranks second in the Big South in assist-to-turnover ratio, sixth in assists and ninth in minutes played. "We're connecting really well right now, especially on the offensive end. Everything is clicking more easily and it spreads the floor, not just for me, but for everyone to create."
At the top of the list of talented newcomers is Keeling, whose freshman season ranks as one of the best in Big South history. Keeling's 29 points Tuesday – his tenth 20-point showing of the campaign – made him the sixth freshman in league annals to score 500 points. Potter, who tallied 414 last year, is relishing forming a 1-2 punch with his fellow Peach State native.
"It's good playing with him – it's really good," said a chuckling Potter. "It gives me some time to get off the ball because I know he can create. He's becoming better at creating for others, also. His aggressiveness just opens the court up for us. Once he starts going, I'll call the play for him to get him the ball back."
Keeling, too, is enjoying the bond he and Potter have created.
"Armel's like my biggest critic but he's also one of my best friends on the team," Keeling said. "They all are but 'Mel, in particular, has been like a big brother. Coming to a lot of games last year as a senior in high school and seeing him is like seeing me this year. We're excited about the future."
"Super aggressive" will be key at Winthrop
Charleston Southern's 1-2 punch figures to need to be at its best if the Bucs are to topple Winthrop. The Eagles feature the winner and runner-up for Big South Player of the Year in Keon Johnson and Xavier Cooks. They went 15-3 in conference play, beat CSU by double digits twice, have not lost in regulation since Dec. 31 and have been to three straight conference championship games.
"Winthrop's a good team, offensively and defensively," Keeling said. "In order to get us going, we're gonna try to get Armel going early, Cortez, Javis – just try to get everybody rolling. That's our plan is to try to attack 'em early and get off to a good start."
Keeling and Potter are certainly on the same page. Both are also well aware the Bucs will need to compete hard defensively to slow down a Winthrop club that leads the league in scoring offense and made threes.
"We're gonna come out super aggressive," Potter said. "That's does mean us just shooting. That means us in attack mode the entire game. We gotta get stops. That's really where it's gonna start. If we get stops, it's gonna give us time to push the ball and be super aggressive. Obviously, our strength is pushing the ball and being aggressive so defensively is definitely key."