CHARLOTTE – It’s a near-certainty that John Feinstein won’t write books about Asheville’s Big South quarterfinal effort against Charleston Southern. It had to – for the first few minutes, at least – feel like an unwelcome repeat of last year’s tournament game against the same Bucs, which saw the Bulldogs get bounced on a buzzer-beater.
Though CSU started the game on an 11-0 run, Asheville – like it did the Saturday prior at Longwood – stayed focused. Just as Fletcher Abee did in that Longwood contest, Tajion Jones and Doc Battle hit key shots to stem the tide and help the Bulldogs avoid a prolonged upset alert.
Along with those two, Drew Pember tallied a double-double – 29 points, 16 boards – while setting a Big South tournament record for free throws made in a game, connecting on 22-of-24. Asheville left the deck in a better mood than last season, claiming a 75-66 result over ninth-seeded Charleston Southern.
“This is a lot better than the last time I sat up here this time last year,” Asheville coach Mike Morrell joked after the game. “I thought it was a real character response by our guys after getting down 11-0 in the first three or four minutes of the game. We’ve been in that situation before, so I think the maturity of our team – a lot more than anything else – was able to get us through that stretch there.”
Asheville (25-7) quickly countered the opening Buccaneer burst, tearing off a 17-6 stretch of its own that leveled the game at 17. Battle then knocked down a jumper at the six-minute mark that gave Asheville an advantage it would not relinquish. That’s not to say, however, that the game ever felt comfortable – especially in the first 20.
“We probably had some jitters, as is normal,” Morrell said. “I thought we really settled in and were able to really fire on all cylinders to shoot 30 percent in the first half. Every time we play Charleston Southern, it’s a battle – especially early on. I’m very, very proud of our team.”
Charleston Southern (10-21), playing its second game in three days, started quickly but could not withstand the Asheville onslaught. Asheville outscored the Bucs, 15-3, after the tie at 17.
“I’m thankful for where we are. We have four sophomores and a freshman,” Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh said. “Yesterday was a great day for our program. We got to be here in Charlotte, we got a win, we felt great, and we grew as a team. Their effort today was amazing. Our kids are banged-up, and it’s hard playing a second game in three days. Asheville’s fresh. They earned that. They deserve that.
“Our guys held them to 35 percent from the floor. We held them to 27 percent from three. We just worked. It just wasn’t our day. We missed a lot of shots that we normally hit. We really struggled to guard Pember. I’m just thankful for the effort that these men gave.”
Through the tough result, Radebaugh saw what can be, as opposed to what was on this Friday afternoon in Charlotte.
“I’m thankful for their potential,” Radebaugh said. “We’re gonna make another big step forward next year. Their team was where we are. Two or three years ago, that’s where Asheville was – a bunch of young guys. Now, they’re one of the top-ten most veteran teams in the country. They’ve earned the right to play like that. Every time we got it to five, six, or seven, they made a play. That’s a veteran team.”
Of course, it’s hard to stop a team that can get to the free throw line 41 times and make 31 – with Pember setting a conference record. Both sides had thoughts on the advantage from the stripe for the Bulldogs.
“Coach crucifies me all the time for not playing on two feet,” Pember joked. “He’s very adamant about me getting on two feet a lot. My teammates – I owe it to them. They trust me to get to the line and make free throws.
“Everyone’s status is the same on this team. We all love each other and we all respect each other. I’ve got a lot of awards, but I can’t do it without Tay and without everyone else. One through 20 in this program is – it’s a good group.”
“There was some frustration there, especially since we weren’t hitting shots on offense,” Claudell Harris Jr. said. “Like Coach said, we were working hard. It almost felt like a bail-out sometimes with him shooting all those free throws and how hard we were working on every possession. So yeah, it did get to us mentally. We were frustrated.”
No matter how the outcome was achieved, Morrell was pleased with his team’s response.
“Everything in this league is galvanizing, quite frankly,” Morrell said of how the challenges in the regular-season finale last Saturday and today brought his team together. I think this is the deepest the league has been. It just makes every game just a bare-knuckle brawl, but that’s what this time of year is. If you think you’re gonna come in here and walk away with something easy, you’re at the wrong tournament.”
Pember's 29 led all scorers. The Big South Player of the Year added 16 boards and induced 12 fouls on CSU defenders. Jones added 19, hitting 6-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-7 from distance. The Bulldogs hit 35.8 percent (19-for-53) from the floor and 27.3 percent (6-for-22) from beyond the arc. 31 Asheville points came from the charity stripe.
Tyeree Bryan paced CSU with 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting, adding eight boards. Tahlik Chavez poured in 13 off the bench, with Harris adding 10. The Bucs hit 37.3 percent (25-for-67) of their tries, with the same three-point effort as Asheville. CSU hit 10-of-12 (83.3 percent) from the stripe.
Asheville advances to the Big South semifinals, where it will play fourth-seeded USC Upstate Saturday at noon. The game will be streamed live over ESPN+.