CONWAY — If Saturday was any indication at all, well, this young Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team might be growing up just in time to have a significant say in the Big South Conference championship race.
Three days after launching an impressive late comeback without their starting point guard that fell just short on a buzzer-beater, the Chanticleers responded with a thoroughly dominant effort against one of the conference’s remaining unbeatens in a 72-49 win over VMI inside The HTC Center.
The Chants (8-8, 3-2 Big South) got a game-high 21 points from senior guard Anthony Raffa and held the league’s top-scoring team well below its previous season average of 82.2 points per game while making a statement of sorts to the rest of the league. VMI (9-8, 4-1), which entered the day as one of two teams still undefeated in Big South play, had a season-low scoring output while shooting just 30.4 percent overall and 8-of-31 from 3-point range.
“I think we’re capable of winning any game, but I think every night’s different,” CCU coach Cliff Ellis said. “Again, I think as long as we play defense and can keep people from scoring, it will overcome the fact that we may not score a lot of points.”
There are no doubt plenty of rough edges left to be smoothed and polished for these Chants, but they seem to be a more confident, cohesive unit now than the group that stumbled through much of the non-conference schedule.
After losing on a buzzer-beating put-back at Gardner-Webb on Wednesday night, Coastal left no doubt about this one. None at all.
The Chants led most of the first half on the way to a 27-23 halftime advantage and then scored the first seven points of the second half – including five from Raffa and a nifty no-look layup from freshman Badou Diagne – to extend a lead that would remain comfortable most of the rest of the way.
“The sky’s the limit right now,” Raffa said. “We’re young. We took a couple losses, but I mean, those losses were on the road. You can see how tough it is for teams to come and try to get a win on the road.”
Case in point - VMI.
The Keydets had won five straight games and were coming off three straight lopsided Big South wins at home, including a 76-57 rout of a solid Campbell team on Wednesday. They hadn’t scored less than 59 points all season and had only once been held to less than 67.
“One word – defense,” Ellis said. “You’d have to look back a long time to see a VMI team score 49 points with the way that they play. You’ve got to credit our defense, and that’s where we’ve got to hang our hat. We kind of play ugly. Things are not necessarily in the flow offensively, but they fight so hard on defense and they rebound. This is one of the better defensive teams that I’ve had.”
In regard to Ellis’ prompt, the last time VMI scored as few as 49 points was a 41-point performance at Winthrop during the 2007-08 season.
“I thought coach Ellis had them totally ready to play and [they] were certainly disruptive to us,” VMI coach Duggar Baucom said. “I think [that was] probably our lowest shooting percentage of the year, certainly our lowest point total of the year, so credit them for taking us out of everything we wanted to do. Our post players gave us a total of four points today, so they did a good job in the post and made it really tough for us to get our 3s off also.”
After Coastal went up 42-28 on a three-point play by senior guard Charles Ashford with 15:29 to play, VMI did manage to draw to within 44-40 before the Chants seized control for good with a 12-2 run.
Raffa moved into 10th place on Coastal’s career scoring list, passing Brian Penny (1,208 from 1988-91). Senior point guard Kierre Greenwood returned to action after missing the last game with the flu and contributed two points and eight assists in 31 minutes. Diagne and junior center El Hadji Ndieguene each had nine points and nine rebounds, meanwhile, and sophomore guard Warren Gillis scored 12.
“Everybody made a difference,” Ellis said. “Everybody that got on the court made a difference.”
VMI senior Stan Okoye – the Big South’s leading scorer at 20.9 points per game entering the day – finished with 16 points on 6-of-21 shooting to go with 12 rebounds. … Greenwood said he was about “78 percent” healthy in his return. “I knew I could help my team contribute to this win, and whatever they need me to do I’ll go ahead and do it.” … The game was broadcast on ESPNU and former CCU women’s basketball standout Brooke Weisbrod was one of the announcers.
VMI (9-8): Okoye 6-21 3-5 16, Covington 1-7 0-4 2, Gore 1-3 0-0 3, Glasgow 5-9 2-2 16, Brown 2-7 2-2 7, Burton 0-0 0-0 0, Absher 0-2 0-0 0, Stephenson 0-0 0-0 0, Carr 0-0 0-0 0, Albritton 1-3 0-0 3, Anglade 1-1 0-0 2, Watson 0-0 0-0 0, Marshall 0-3 0-1 0. Totals 17-56 7-14 49.
COASTAL CAROLINA (8-8): Diagne 4-9 1-3 9, Ndieguene 4-9 1-4 9, Gillis 4-13 2-3 12, Raffa 8-12 3-4 21, Greenwood 1-8 0-0 2, James 0-0 0-0 0, Ashford 2-5 1-1 5, Enanga 3-6 2-2 8, Ljeskovic 0-0 0-0 0, Daniel 1-1 0-0 2, Curtis 0-2 2-4 2, Addey 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 28-66 12-21 72.
Halftime–Coastal Carolina 27-23. 3-Point Goals–VMI 8-31 (Glasgow 4-7, Gore 1-3, Albritton 1-3, Brown 1-6, Okoye 1-8, Absher 0-1, Marshall 0-3), Coastal Carolina 4-15 (Gillis 2-5, Raffa 2-6, Enanga 0-1, Diagne 0-3). Fouled Out–Gillis. Rebounds–VMI 35 (Okoye 12), Coastal Carolina 52 (Diagne, Ndieguene 9). Assists–VMI 10 (Okoye 4), Coastal Carolina 16 (Greenwood 8). Total Fouls–VMI 19, Coastal Carolina 18. Technical–VMI Bench. A–2,419.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.