Charleston Southern says run not done

Updated: March 10, 2013, 4:20 PM ET
Associated Press

CONWAY, S.C. -- Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh believes his team is not done competing for Big South Conference titles.

The league's regular-season champions fell to Liberty 87-76 in the tournament final Sunday, the Buccaneers missing a chance at what would have been their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997.

In Radebaugh's view, this group will have more opportunities to cut down nets.

"We're a really young team and we've got a lot of basketball left in us," Radebaugh said. "We didn't win today, but we've accomplished four of our five goals and we've got everybody back."

The Buccaneers (19-12) won the Big South's South Division and will head to the NIT in two weeks. They've improved from nine wins in 2009 to back-to-back 19-win seasons.

This one will sting for a bit, said Saah Nimley, who led Charleston Southern with 18 points.

"But we won't dwell on it," he said. "We'll get back to Charleston and get back to work."

The Flames finished their best stretch of basketball this season, winning their fifth in a row -- and their fourth game since Tuesday -- to take their first Big South tournament crown since 2004. John Caleb Sanders led the way with 27 points and tournament MVP Davon Marshall had 20 off six 3-pointers.

Marshall and Sanders got things going in a hurry over top-seeded Charleston Southern (19-12) with 3-pointers in the first 90 seconds -- and the Flames barely lost their outside touch. Marshall was 6 of 7 from beyond the arc and Liberty finished 9 of 18 on long-range baskets.

The performance ended a hard-to-imagine run through the field where Liberty defeated home-standing Coastal Carolina and both Big South divisional winners in High Point and Charleston Southern. Sanders said the team began to believe when they topped the Chanticleers 78-61. "When you can beat Coastal by 20 on their home floor, we knew we could beat anybody in this tournament," he said.

That played out over the week at the HTC Center with the improbable run.

"We've played four of our best games in these four games of the tournament," Sanders said. "Talk about peaking at the exact right time."

Count on Liberty being near the bottom of the 68 NCAA seeds and a likely candidate for the tournament's first four contests. Sanders says he and the Flames don't care which opponent they face.

"I feel like if we do us, we can give them a game," he said.

Saah Nimley had 18 points to lead the Buccaneers, who as the Big South's regular-season champs will play in the NIT.

The Flames and their cheerleaders rushed the court when the game ended, the players piling on top of each other in celebration. And why not, since Liberty was among the longest of longshots to be cutting down the nets in this one?

Liberty will try and pull off a Big South tournament double later Sunday when its top-seeded women's team takes on Longwood for that NCAA berth. The Flames women have won 14 of the past 16 Big South tournament titles.

The Flames fell behind for a final time, 40-37, on Arlon Harper's 3-pointer with 18:10 lead. That's when Sanders' jumper started a 17-7 run the next six minutes to take control. The charge was capped by Marshall's long 3-pointer that put Liberty ahead 54-47. The lead eventually grew to 14 points as the Bucs could not match Liberty's success from the field.

Charleston Southern was just 9 of 28 from behind the arc and Nimley, who made the all-Big South Conference team, was just 1 of 7 from three. The Bucs finished with five players in double figures.

Buccaneers coach Barclay Radebaugh said he told people after his team's 79-75 victory at Liberty on Jan. 26 that he wanted no part of what the Flames were building a second time.

"I think they're lying in wait," he said. "That's a scary team. They've got size, they've got depth. They're guards are good. They're strong."

Charleston Southern came in the tournament's top seed and would have hosted this final under the Big South's old home-court format. The league began a three-year deal to play at the recently opened, $35 million HTC Center on the campus of Big South member Coastal Carolina -- about 10 miles or so west of South Carolina's Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach resort area.

The Buccaneers hadn't been to a Big South final since 2005 and last won in 1997, also the last time they advanced to the NCAA tournament. They got to the championship by defeating Winthrop in the tournament opener and rallied from 5 points down at the half to oust VMI, 71-65.

Liberty was next to last in the Big South's six-team North Division. That's when the Flames found their game, topping host Coastal Carolina in the opening round before knocking off one of the tournament favorites in High Point, 61-60, in the quarterfinals. The Flames led throughout against High Point, taking a 19-point lead and holding on.

Liberty kept the run going on Saturday with a win over Gardner-Webb.

The Flames didn't let up against Charleston Southern. Sanders, the team's leading scorer this year at 13 points a game, nearly reached that mark with 12 points in the period while Marshall added 11.

Tavares Speaks hit a bucket as the halftime buzzer sounded that put the Flames ahead 35-34 heading into the break. Speaks ended the game with 18 points.

Layer previously led Colorado State into the NCAAs back in 2003. He said it was difficult to compare experiences and chooses to concentrate on his happy players, snipping away at basketball nets to take back to campus.

"It's life changing. I'm just looking at their faces and trying to soak in every moment," he said. "That's what you're doing this for."


Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index