I made my return to Kimbel Arena for the first time in two weeks. It seemed a lot longer than that since I had been to so many games since then, including a trip to New England. Much like any other Big South game of late, I was expecting a close game between Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern. The previous meeting in North Charleston went to overtime and was very emotional for everyone involved.
CSU really needed this game to have any chance of winning the Big South regular season title, which also gives you the opportunity to host the Big South tournament. They are the only team to knock off the leaders of the conference, UNC-Asheville. The Bucs would hold the tiebreaker with it being the only meeting between the two since the schedule is unbalanced this year. The problem is with four conference losses CSU doesn't have much wiggle room left.
CCU wanted to win this game just as much though after taking a week off. This would be a pivotal 10-day stretch for the Chants with five games in that span. CCU was one game behind UNC-A and since the Bulldogs are rolling through the Big South, they'd have to keep winning to possibly force a huge return game with Asheville.
When I arrived well before the game time I noticed a commotion with some students in the area where my seat was. MASN would be televising the game and the announce team was doing the pregame two rows in front of where I would usually sit. They had called a few students over to sit behind them and do the general yelling and hollering to make it look like there were more than 50 people in the arena 20 minutes prior to the game. Not wanting to be a crotchety 32-year old, I decided to sit elsewhere for the time being. It also gave me ample time to create a very poor 800GP sign which I was able to get on air a few times during the broadcast.
A few minutes before the start of play a strange injury occurred. I wasn't paying much attention to the layup line, but apparently Kelvin Martin took a spill and was bleeding from the nose, or maybe it was a nosebleed and he fell to the ground, either way there was a good amount of blood on the floor. Martin would miss the start, but returned several minutes into the game.
CSU was coming off a pretty poor shooting performance in their loss to Campbell, but the streaky Bucs were lighting it up in the beginning. After two Mathiang Muo 3's, CSU had a 15-11 lead and the pace of the game was in favor of the Bucs. Cliff Ellis elected to take a 30 second timeout to calm his kids down. This is when Chris Gradnigo started to take over the game. You can tell what type of game Gradnigo is going to have after his first few plays. When he's aggressive and playing on both sides of the floor he can dominate a game and after scoring seven quick points, you could tell he was going to bring it.
CCU took the lead late in the half and could have pulled away if not for CSU's surprisingly good job on the boards. It did help that the good early shooting had gone away for the Bucs, providing them with plenty of chances for offensive rebounds (12 in the half).
The Chants had a 32-28 point lead coming out of the half and when the Bucs kept missing right out of the gate, so CCU was able to push the lead up to 11. CSU made sure Coastal wasn't going to run away with it after buckets from Saah Nimley and Jeremy Sexton. Gradnigo would immediately knock it back to double digits for the Chanticleers. This process would stay true for much of the second half as any time CSU would score four or five points, CCU would answer, mainly through highlight reel plays with blocks, dunks, and 3's.
The most emphatic moment was when Gradnigo was looking to make a simple drive to the lane and ended up dunking on Martin. Martin gives up a few inches to Gradnigo, but he's super athletic, which made the jam that much more impressive. Kimbel Arena has been pretty low on the loudness factor the past few games, but that dunk erupted the whole place. The video of it doesn't really do it justice, nor does coach Ellis' postgame "Re-dunkulous" reaction.
While the first slam may have made the Top 10 on Sportscenter, Gradnigo followed it a minute later, by dunking on Paul Gombwer which was equally as nasty. Coastal's lead was accumulating and they eventually were up by as many as 18. CSU couldn't keep up and ended up with their second game in a row shooting only 30%.
With CCU's win it really has become a two horse race atop of the Big South. Asheville was able to win against Liberty later in the day and the December 14th game in Conway looms large. CCU has to take care of business though as they face the only other conference team that has beat them in Campbell on Tuesday.
Despite the scores of some of the games in the Big South I'm becoming a big fan of all the teams in the conference. Being a CCU season ticket holder it's hard rooting against some of the opposing teams. Charleston Southern has been down for so long you can't help but root for them. Going to all these games has put things in a much different perspective. I'm glad I was able to broaden my fandom and look forward to the closing stretch of the season.
at COASTAL CAROLINA 71, CHARLESTON SOUTHERN 58 02/04/2012
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN 14-9 (8-5) -- P. Gombwer 1-6 2-2 4; S. Nimley 2-13 0-0 6; K. Martin 5-12 3-8 13; A. Harper 7-15 4-4 22; M. Muo 2-7 1-2 7; J. Sexton 2-7 0-0 4; C. Grier 1-4 0-0 2; S. Strickland 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 20-66 10-16 58. COASTAL CAROLINA 17-5 (10-2) -- K. Greenwood 6-8 7-7 19; A. Raffa 6-11 2-2 15; J. Pack 1-3 3-4 5; S. McLaurin 1-4 3-3 5; D. Nieman 1-4 0-0 3; C. Gradnigo 9-16 4-6 24; W. Gillis 0-0 0-0 0; J. Griffin 0-0 0-0 0; D. Moore 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-47 19-22 71.
Three-point goals: CHSO 8-24 (J. Sexton 0-2; M. Muo 2-6; S. Strickland 0-1; A. Harper 4-6; S. Nimley 2-9), CCU 4-12 (C. Gradnigo 2-4; A. Raffa 1-4; D. Nieman 1-3; K. Greenwood 0-1); Rebounds: CHSO 31 (P. Gombwer 8), CCU 32 (J. Pack 10); Assists: CHSO 7 (A. Harper 3), CCU 10 (K. Greenwood 3); Total Fouls -- CHSO 18, CCU 15; Fouled Out: CHSO-None; CCU-None.