BUIES CREEK, N.C. – A Radford win in Friday’s first Big South semifinal would give the Highlanders a second-straight trip to the title game. All they had to do was get past a Charleston Southern club that had not allowed any opponent to shoot greater than 39 percent in the last seven games, with one of those being the Highlanders. Radford shot just 28.8 percent in a 53-52 loss at the Buc Dome on Feb. 16.
For a half, it looked as though the Bucs’ vision of competing for a crown would be realized sooner than planned.
Radford, however, showed why it is the league’s defending tournament champion and this year’s regular-season co-champion.
Carlik Jones poured in 21 for the Highlanders, while Travis Fields continued his tradition of knocking down key shots in tournament games, as Radford earned another chance to compete for a banner with a 63-54 victory.
“I’m just really proud of these guys for just having poise in the face of adversity and being able to finish off a very tough team,” said Radford head coach Mike Jones.
The first half was initially a bit of a struggle for both sides, as neither side could crack the 32 percent mark from the field for the first 10-plus minutes. Charleston Southern (15-16) broke the ice as the six-minute mark neared, unleashing a spate of three-pointers to key a 14-0 Buccaneer run. Radford finally snapped a six-minute string without a bucket on a Travis Fields triple, but could manage just one free throw from Fields over the final 3:21 of the period.
The Buccaneers took a 29-19 advantage to the interval, having limited the Highlanders to 24.1 percent shooting (7-for-29) in the initial twenty. Charleston Southern also forced seven Radford miscues in the period.
“I thought we were incredible in the first half. (We played) as well as we have all year defensively, to hold them to 19 points, and for them to shoot 24 percent,” said Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh. “We gave it our best shot. We played as hard as we could play.”
“We faced a lot of adversity in that first half, and I thought our guys didn’t show any signs of wilting or letting it affect them in a negative way,” said Mike Jones. “We knew that we had a chance to come back, and we knew if we came out in the second half with the kind of intensity that we play with most days, that we could get back in the game. It was just a matter of us playing with poise.”
Radford (22-10) found that poise tested early in the second half, as the Buccaneers extended their lead to 12 on a Christian Keeling layup just inside the 15-minute mark. That’s when Radford’s poise – and its defense – appeared.
The lead gradually withered – to nine, then six, then three, then one – as the Highlanders clamped down on the defensive end of the floor. Radford regained the lead on the strength of a 14-0 run, which was capped by a Carlik Jones triple from the Big South Championship logo. Jones spoke of his mindset in overcoming some early struggles to hit the key shot.
“I just try to stay positive with everything. My teammates play a big role. Sometimes, I know I miss shots, and sometimes put my head down or just get on myself, and my teammates are always there to pick me up,” said Jones. “I feel like I always shoot the ball with confidence, no matter what the percentages say or what anyone else says. I did that tonight.”
Ty Jones knocked down back-to-back buckets for Charleston Southern to stem the tide, but the respite was short-lived. Just as he had done in the previous day’s quarterfinal win over Presbyterian and last year’s tournament against Winthrop, Travis Fields connected on a game-changing shot. Fields took a pass from Jones, squared up from the left perimeter and splashed a three that gave Radford a lead it would never relinquish.
“In those situations, it’s not necessarily me looking for a shot. It’s just the best play possible for the team at that time, and if it just happens to be an open shot, I’ll take it,” said Fields. “If it is, I just focus in on it and try to knock it down.”
The Radford defensive effort was magnified by the fact that the Highlanders committed just 12 fouls. “We’ve done a pretty good job all season of not fouling that much. We actually had fouls to give coming down to the last five minutes. That’s hard to do,” said Mike Jones. “I thought we had a really good refereeing crew tonight, and I thought they let it play on both sides. We saw that early, and I think we adjusted to that, and we did the same thing on the other end.”
Charleston Southern connected on just 10-of-30 tries in the second half, after knocking down 37.5 percent in the first. Keeling led the Bucs with 15, while Phlandrous Fleming added 10.
“I thought in the second half, it got away from us a little bit. We missed four or five layups in the second half that totally changed the game, and our guys did a great job of getting to the rim to create those shots. They just didn’t go,” said Radebaugh. “Our execution was good, and on most nights, those shots go in. If those go in, it’s certainly a different end to the game.”
Carlik Jones’ 21 led all scorers. Fields added 16 for the Highlanders. Donald Hicks added 10 of Radford’s 45 rebounds. 13 of those boards came on the offensive end.
Radford will face fourth-seeded Gardner-Webb for the Big South championship Sunday afternoon. The game will be played in Radford’s Dedmon Center at 1:00 (Eastern) and will be televised over ESPN.