Valentine’s Day present: nine straight wins

Now that’s a Valentine’s Day to remember:  The Citadel 72, College of Charleston 58, in the Bulldogs’ first game ever at Carolina First Arena (with 5,168 spectators in attendance).

I have to admit that I wasn’t so sure about The Citadel’s chances of winning this game, despite the solid victory at McAlister three weeks ago.  I felt the Bulldogs were perhaps due for a bad game, and that the College was on a roll after its comeback victory at Davidson and subsequent thumping of Western Carolina.

After watching the first half, though, I realized that my fears  were misguided.  The Citadel had committed nine turnovers in only twenty-seven possessions, meaning that the Bulldogs had turned the ball over every third time down the court (a terrible percentage, to say the least).  Normally that would be a recipe for disaster, but instead The Citadel only trailed by one point (29-28).

The Bulldogs were shooting the ball well, and when not committing turnovers were doing a good job running their offense, using the shotclock, making the Cougars work on defense  (which some of the CofC players did not appear to enjoy), and controlling the pace of play.  The Citadel had handled the College’s press with relative ease (which had also happened in the first meeting), and I figured that as long as the Bulldogs took care of the basketball in their normal fashion in the second half, they would be in good shape.  That is exactly what happened.  The Citadel turned over the ball over on its first possession of the second half, but then committed only two more turnovers the rest of the game.

Then there was the rebounding.

The Citadel outrebounded the CofC 13-8 in the first half, which was a marked departure from the first contest between the two teams, when for the game the Cougars had 38 rebounds to the Bulldogs’ 25.  The reason The Citadel didn’t just win on Saturday, but won going away, was that the Bulldogs completely dominated the glass in the second half, essentially reversing the board differential from the first game, and finished +17 (38 rebounds to the CofC’s 21).  The most impressive statistic in the game, to me, was that the Bulldogs got more offensive rebounds (13) than the College got defensive boards (12).

That had to have frustrated Bobby Cremins and the CofC fans, especially since the Cougars started three frontcourt players in the 6’7″-6’8″ range and brought another 6’8″ forward off the bench, and none of those guys were stringbeans, either.  Meanwhile, The Citadel countered with a starting lineup featuring one 6’8″ post player (Demetrius Nelson) and a bunch of guards, including John Brown, who is 6’4″ but essentially fills the power forward role for the Bulldogs — and it was Brown who proved to be the primary nemesis for the Cougars’ big men, gathering 12 rebounds (5 offensive), scoring 14 points on 7-10 shooting (I think every made basket was a layup), and generally being a nuisance on the defensive end of the floor.   Interestingly, Brown had the same rebounding totals (12/5 offensive) in the first matchup.

In this game, though, he had help on the boards from Nelson (7/3 offensive) and, somewhat surprisingly, Zach Urbanus (who had the same 7/3 ratio).

I would like to riff a little about an aspect of Ed Conroy’s coaching that I have gradually come to appreciate.  The Citadel runs a very disciplined offense, one that usually involves working the clock and controlling the pace of play.  The Bulldogs are generally at their best when the number of possessions in a game hovers around 60 or so.  Whenever I am watching, and things start to get a bit frenetic, or someone takes a shot with 25 seconds or more remaining on the shotclock, I’m inclined to start mumbling things like, “Slow it down!  Slow it down!  You’re playing too fast!  Work the clock!”  You get the idea.  I’m particularly prone to think this way late in games when The Citadel has a lead.

The key is, though, that while a Bulldog will occasionally force a shot, it doesn’t really happen too often — and more importantly, the players maintain a sense of aggressiveness.  There is a distinction to be made between a disciplined offense and a conservative offense.  It doesn’t do you any good to run the shotclock down to 5 on each possession if you regularly wind up hoisting a 30-foot jumper.

So while I may have wished that Cosmo Morabbi had not attempted a contested three-pointer with the Bulldogs up 14 and just over 4 minutes to play, and with 26 seconds still remaining on the shotclock, I can understand that the freedom he has in being “allowed” to attempt that shot is critical.  Maybe that time he made a mistake, but by being aggressive and not timid, he also was in a position to make two other three-pointers during the game, including the shot that signalled the game was The Citadel’s to lose, a three-pointer at the 10:20 mark that stretched the Bulldogs’ lead to nine — and a shot taken with 25 seconds still remaining on the shotclock.

That’s good coaching.

There has been some discussion about yesterday’s victory by The Citadel being “historic”, with references to “The Citadel’s first two-game series sweep since the 1932-33 season” in this column by Gene Sapakoff in The Post and Courier, as well as Jeff Hartsell’s game story (“an event that comes around every 76 years or so”).  This angle pops up in other press reports, too.

Now, with all due respect to the above chroniclers, I think the whole “first sweep since the 1930s” thing is overblown and a bit misleading. Before Saturday, the Bulldogs had not swept the Cougars in a two-game set since 1933, but following the 1937 season (a year during which the schools met three times, with The Citadel winning the latter two matchups), The Citadel and the College of Charleston did not play again until 1956.  After that one game, the series again went into hibernation, and did not resume until 1977. In addition, The Citadel and the CofC only began playing twice per year again in 1997 (except for a two-game set in 1983, which was split).  The truth is there was a 60-year period in the series during which The Citadel (or the College of Charleston, for that matter) had only one opportunity for a “sweep”.

Also, of course, technically The Citadel has not “swept” the College of Charleston this season — yet.  The two schools could meet for a third time in the Southern Conference tournament, although as things currently stand that potential matchup could only happen if both teams advanced to the championship game.  With yesterday’s win, the chances of The Citadel getting to the final improved slightly, because the Bulldogs are now in position to get a first-round bye (as a top-2 finisher in the South Division).

That would be critical, particular for The Citadel.  It would be much easier to win three straight games than have to win four games in four days in Chattanooga (no team has ever gone the “four in four” route to win the SoCon tourney).  Also, given The Citadel’s putrid history in the Southern Conference tournament, having to play one fewer game to actually win the thing would surely come as a relief.  Three tournament wins would be more victories than The Citadel has had in the last 22 tournaments combined.

To guarantee getting that bye, The Citadel has to win at least three of its remaining four games.  The win over the Cougars gave the Bulldogs a little cushion, as the game at Davidson on Wednesday is not a must-win for bye hopes.  However, there is still work to do.  The Citadel also has home games remaining against Furman, a team the Bulldogs had to go to overtime to beat in Greenville (and the Paladins appear to be improving), and Wofford, which beat The Citadel in Spartanburg — the last time the Bulldogs lost a game.  The Citadel finishes the season at Georgia Southern, which has been decimated by injuries and suspensions.  It’s still a road game, though.

The Citadel would get an additional mulligan (or more) if the College of Charleston is unable to win out.  The College has three straight road games up next on its schedule; a slip-up by the Cougars at any of those games would greatly help the Bulldogs’ cause.

As I write this the status of Stephen Curry for Wednesday’s game is uncertain, as Davidson’s all-everything player injured his ankle on Saturday night against Furman.  Even without him, though, the Wildcats would be a formidable opponent, particularly at Belk Arena.  Obviously Davidson is a much better team with him.

While awaiting updates on Curry, it’s worth taking stock in what the Bulldogs have accomplished already.  17 victories clinches a winning season for the first time in seven seasons.  The Citadel has only won more games than that in a season twice in its history (18 in 1985 and 20 in 1979).  The 12 conference victories is a school record, although past teams didn’t have a 20-game league schedule.  Still, no Bulldog squad has ever finished a season with a .750 winning percentage in conference play, which the current group is on pace to do.  The Citadel continues to add to its record for consecutive conference wins.

It’s been a great run so far, but there is still (hopefully) more fun on the horizon.

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