GAME NOTES: The second seed in the South Division and the top seed in the North Division meet in the Big South Conference Tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon, as the Virginia Military Keydets take on the Charleston Southern Buccaneers at The HTC Center in Conway, South Carolina.
The winner will advance to Sunday's championship game to face either Liberty or Gardner-Webb.
After losing six straight games in February, VMI closed out the regular season with two straight wins heading into the tournament, and it built upon that momentum with a 90-86 victory over Longwood in the quarterfinal round on Thursday night to improve to 14-16 overall.
Charleston Southern earned the No. 1 seed in the South after going 12-4 in conference action, and following a 54-47 triumph over Winthrop in the quarterfinals, it now sits with an 18-11 overall record.
Charleston Southern defeated VMI just a few weeks ago, claiming a 92-69 home win on Feb. 21, although the Keydets still lead the all-time series, 13-10.
VMI held a double-digit lead for most of the second half against Longwood earlier in the week, and while it saw its advantage slip to just two points in the final minute, it held on for the quarterfinal victory. Stan Okoye was outstanding in the win, shooting 8-of-17 from the field and 12-of-14 from the foul line for 31 points, his third consecutive 30-plus-point performance. D.J. Covington (26 points, six rebounds) and Rodney Glasgow (22 points, six assists) were also excellent in the shootout win. Although the Keydets have the top-ranked scoring offense in the Big South, pouring in 78.6 ppg, they have wallowed in mediocrity all season by allowing nearly as many points to their opponents (78.0 ppg). Okoye leads the league in both scoring (21.8 ppg) and rebounding (9.2 rpg), and he was named the Big South Player of the Year. Covington is also strong down low with 14.9 ppg on 56 percent field goal shooting to go with 7.2 rpg and 2.9 bpg, while Glasgow chips in 11.0 ppg.
Charleston Southern's quarterfinal-round matchup was quite the opposite of VMI's, as it outlasted Winthrop in a defensive struggle despite shooting a lowly 28 percent from the field. The Bucs held Winthrop to only 32 percent shooting and managed to take advantage of its trips to the foul line (19- of-21). Mathiang Muo tallied a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Arlon Harper made up for a 2-of-8 showing from the field by connecting on 7-of-8 from the free-throw stripe en route to 11 points. It was a rather puzzling offensive performance for the squad, which ranks second to VMI in scoring offense with 78.6 ppg, but unlike the Keydets, it usually plays strong defense, yielding just 66.0 ppg. Saah Nimley is not only the team's top scorer with 15.6 ppg but he also hands out 5.1 apg and grabs 5.1 rpg. Harper scores 14.6 ppg, Muo nets 11.4 ppg, and Jeremy Sexton brings 10.0 ppg to the mix, and all four of the Bucs' top scorers have drained at least 44 3-pointers this season.
Both teams have the ability to fill up the basket with relative ease (even if Charleston Southern didn't show it in the quarterfinals), but what separates them is the Bucs ability to tighten up on defense, giving them the clear advantage to move on to the championship game.
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