Cougar women lock up SoCon bye, winning regular season

The College of Charleston’s women’s basketball team held off rally after rally in a tough-fought second half to defeat Furman, 70-58, and cap a remarkable turn-around season under first-year head coach Natasha Adair.

The win not only moved Charleston into fifth place in the final Southern Conference standings, it also locked up a first-round bye in this weekend’s SoCon Tournament in Asheville, and gave the Cougars only their fourth 15-win season since joining the SoCon 15 years ago. Charleston (15-14, 11-9 SoCon), which was picked to finish 10th in the 11-team league, won only seven games a year ago, and 10 games the season before that.

“It has been a year of growth, a year of trust and believing and I’m so proud of my team,” Adair said after the game. “Our kids have learned a lot about themselves through this season. Even when we went through a six-game losing streak, I talked about it more as a learning streak. The confidence of our kids is very high right now and they took some risks tonight and played hard.”

The Cougars’ gritty play resulted in a 58-36 rebounding advantage, including a 21-16 edge on the offensive glass. Afreyea Tolbert had a game-high 14 rebounds to go along with her 20 points, while Mikaela Hopkins had a double-double off the bench, with 10 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes.

“We were ready and prepared going into this game,” Adair said. “I thought our rebounding was huge for us tonight. To finish with 21 offensive rebounds shows we were being aggressive throughout the game. I looked in their eyes near the end of the game and I could see a confidence and a determination about them.”

The Cougars led by as many as 14 in the first half at 24-10, but Furman went on a strong run in the middle of the second half to cut the lead to four. The Paladins (12-17, 8-12) did everything they could to keep it close, but a block-and-rebound from Alyssa Frye and two late free throws from Jillian Brown allowed the Cougars to push the lead back to 14 in the final minute.

The win was crucial to the Cougars’ success, not only in securing a winning regular-season record in the team’s final SoCon season, but also for avoiding a taxing first-round matchup next weekend. Charleston and Samford both came into the final day with 10-9 conference records; the Cougars needed either a win or a Samford loss to take the No. 5 seed. When the Bulldogs sealed their 63-60 win over Appalachian State with a buzzer-beater, it meant the Cougars needed to beat Furman to claim the league’s last bye.

Now, the Cougars’ attention turns to Appalachian State (19-9, 13-7), who they will face in the SoCon quarterfinals at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday. The Mountaineers swept the Cougars this season, but Adair is confident that a different Charleston team will take the court in Asheville.

“Our kids’ confidence is high right now,” she said. “We were still working on fine-tuning things when we hosted App State. Our depth is an advantage for us. It’s going to be about us and our preparation.”

Follow and @CisternYard on Twitter for all of the SoCon Tournament news for both the men’s and women’s teams in Asheville.

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