ROCK HILL, S.C. – Charleston Southern challenged regular season champion Winthrop on its home floor before falling, 92-78, in the quarterfinals of the Big South Championship Thursday at the Winthrop Coliseum.
CSU (12-19) played from behind all night after falling into an early 15-point hole but battled back to draw within four twice near the midway point of the second half. The Bucs shot 56 percent after halftime and gave Winthrop (24-6) trouble with their dribble penetration. Led by Big South Player of the Year Keon Johnson's 31 points, though, the veteran Eagles responded to move into Friday's semifinals.
Four different Bucs scored during an 8-0 spurt to whittle the deficit to 55-51 at the 11:35 mark, prompting a Winthrop timeout. After the teams traded points, three-pointers by Roderick Perkins and Xavier Cooks got Winthrop's potent offense back on track and CSU had no answer down the stretch. Perkins buried another three to put the Eagles up 11 with 6:28 remaining and the Bucs came no closer than nine the rest of the way.
Cooks, runner-up for Player of the Year honors, tallied his eleventh double-double of the season and third against CSU with 19 points and ten rebounds. Anders Broman added 15 points, nine of which came on triples during Winthrop's torrid start. Perkins chipped in 12 points, highlighted by two timely treys.
Armel Potter (21 points), Cortez Mitchell (19 points) and Christian Keeling (18 points) combined for 58 points to once again power CSU offensively. The Bucs went small in the second half and gave Winthrop, the Big South leader in field goal percentage defense, fits. The trio's aggression was particularly impressive as CSU got to the free-throw line 32 times, converting 22.
CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh was complementary of a stellar Winthrop team, while also heaping praise on his young squad. The Bucs will return nearly 80 percent of their scoring and rebounding next year.
"You could just tell their poise," Radebaugh said. "We cut it to four and they were not rattled. They lose – however many they were up by – and just walk to their bench and we're jumping up and down. You could just see the difference in the teams from an experience standpoint. They're very difficult to guard at a number of positions and the biggest thing is they're very veteran. They executed very well down the stretch, particularly defensively, and made some big shots."
"I can't tell you how proud I am of our team," Radebaugh continued. "We came in here (a week ago) and it wasn't a contest. This was a contest, and that score's not indicative of what a good contest it was. I thought our guys played with great courage, with physical toughness. This has been a good tournament experience for our young team, even though it's shorter than we would have liked, and it's going to be very valuable as we continue to grow this thing back to where we want to be."
CSU trailed 44-31 at halftime and by 12 with 14:44 remaining before mounting its biggest threat. Freshman Jordan Jones scored on an offensive put back, and Keeling, Mitchell and Javis Howard made jumpers to temporarily silence a vocal crowd. After Broman and Mitchell exchanged points, Cooks missed two free throws, giving the Bucs possession with a chance to close within one score. The Bucs came up empty, and Perkins nailed a corner three to send Winthrop's lead back to seven. Cooks pumped in a triple and Johnson exploded to the rim for two as the Eagles kicked their high octane attack back into gear.
The Bucs hung around over the next several minutes but struggled to string stops together. Johnson hit two free throws to put the Eagles up by double figures for good, 76-65, at the 5:43 mark. Cooks' third triple provided an 83-70 edge and the final dagger with 2:51 left.
"I thought our guard play was outstanding," Radebaugh added afterward. "Offensively, we've got the ability to spread the floor and we got to the rim as well as we've done all year and all that is coming back so we're very excited about that. Defensively, I thought we struggled at times, particularly in defensive transition. We struggled to get back. Credit to Keon on that too, though. He pushes the ball as well as any guard in the country."
Johnson started red hot en route to becoming the ninth player in league history to surpass 2,000 career points. He opened the scoring with a three 23 seconds into play and added three more in the opening 6:12 to stake Winthrop to a 21-7 advantage. Cooks and Broman connected from downtown as well during the opening onslaught, with the latter pushing the Eagles in front 24-9. Winthrop drained seven of its first ten threes, and finished 14-for-30 from beyond the arc.
CSU shot only 36 percent in the opening stanza but pressed the issue to get to the line 18 times, making 11 to hang around. Potter swished two free throws to close the gap to 39-31 with 2:10 left in the half. Winthrop tallied the final five points of the period to forge a 13-point halftime lead.
Potter reached the 20-point mark for the sixth time this year and second time in the last three games. Keeling pulled down a team high 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double and second in as many games. His 539 points are the most by a freshman in program history. Patrick Wallace and Raemond Robinson scored four and three points, respectively, in their final collegiate game. The program graduates that duo, along with Zach Durkee and Ugo Mmonu.