CHARLESTON, S.C. – USC Upstate's Mike Cunningham hit a contested three-pointer with seven seconds left to give the Spartans a 79-77 win over Charleston Southern on Saturday at the Buc Dome.
Cunningham's step-back three from the right wing sent Upstate (2-2) in front by a point. CSU (1-2) turned it over on its ensuing possession and Cunningham added a free throw to provide the final margin as Cortez Mitchell's three-quarter court heave clanged off the back rim at the buzzer.
CSU had rallied from down three inside the last two minutes thanks to an acrobatic layup by Christian Keeling and a Patrick Wallace triple. Wallace's shot came off a steal and assist by Keeling and put the Bucs ahead 77-75 with 21 seconds remaining.
Cunningham's trey was the difference in a game that featured ten ties and 12 lead changes. Neither side led by more than seven points. Cunningham paced Upstate with 21 points and four of the team's 11 threes. Javis Howard led CSU with a double-double of 16 points and 12 rebounds. The 12 boards matched a career high. Keeling added 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals in another active effort.
CSU will now head on the road to play Abilene Christian on Tuesday. Bucs' head coach Barclay Radebaugh knows his team will need to play better on the defensive end of the floor.
"Give a lot of credit to Cunningham and Upstate but we didn't lose because of that last play," Radebaugh said. "We didn't get down in our stance and guard like we're capable of and that was disappointing. We need to do that on a consistent basis to be the type of team we think we can be."
"Abilene got a really good win over a New Hampshire team that had just beaten Temple so that will be another big challenge," Radebaugh continued. "We need to keep working to get better and defend and execute like we're capable of to have a chance."
CSU trailed 42-37 at halftime but rattled off a 16-7 run to start the second half and forge a 53-49 lead. Back-to-back baskets by Armel Potter helped build momentum and Jamal Thomas capped off the surge with a three from in front of the Bucs' bench. Potter's free throw at the 10:31 mark provided a 60-53 edge, the largest for either team.
Upstate then put together a quick 8-1 spurt to tie the game at 61 apiece on Philip Whittington's jumper. Potter answered with a three from the corner to slide CSU back in front, and Howard dropped home a jump hook off one of his eight offensive rebounds for a 66-61 lead. It was back and forth from there, with seven lead changes over the final seven minutes.
The Bucs led 19-13 at one point in a tightly contested first half after one of Wallace's three threes. A Howard dunk off a Jamar Martin steal and feed provided one of the high points of the opening stanza for the Bucs. Martin contributed off the bench once again, highlighted by a three-point play on a left-handed tip.
Martin's high degree of difficulty follow accounted for a 29-24 CSU lead but Upstate got hot from downtown for the remainder of the half. Ramel Thompkins buried three straight threes over a span of just 1:15, and Cunningham pumped in another to give the Spartans a 40-35 advantage. Mitchell and Carson Smith traded layups to send the game into halftime with CSU behind by five.
CSU's meeting with Abilene Christian Tuesday will be the first-ever between the two programs. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. The Wildcats will make a return trip to the Buc Dome on Dec. 3.