The competitive environment was established early on at The DIRECTV Charleston Classic at College of Charleston’s TD Arena. In the fairly empty arena, a pair of high school pep bands blared on their brass horns and echoed cheers from across the gym in a pre-game “Drumline”-esque battle of sorts. Their enthusiastic tunes and resounding foot stomping set the stage for the first match-up of the day, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-1) versus the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (2-0). As the teams warmed up, members of the marquee Virginia Commonwealth University coaching staff, including prominent head coach Shaka Smart (he looks much shorter in person), were looking on, sizing up the competition. The VCU Rams, considered by many to be the favorite of the tournament, experienced a magical run to the Final Four in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Charleston Classic began with a 12:30 p.m. tipoff, and neither team wasted much time getting to work. A surprisingly raucous crowd for the rather early opening game was into it from the start, with both sides represented just about equally in the stands. Neither squad got off to a considerably hot start, as open threes were off the mark on each end. However, Western Kentucky’s ability to get to the basket allowed them to establish an early lead, but their inability to stay out of foul trouble allowed Tulsa to keep it close. At the midway point of the first half, Tulsa had pulled ahead on a pair of three balls from junior Scottie Haralson and sophomore Tim Peete, making the score 19-14. Back to back Hilltopper turnovers led to fast breaks for the Golden Hurricane, who extended their lead to 21-14 with 7:33 remaining in the first. WKU answered with a three ball from Kahlil McDonald, but Tulsa’s sophomore center Kodi Maduka came right back with a strong two-handed slam on the other end.
During a time-out with 3:08 to go, Bobby Cremins, head coach of the Charleston Cougars, the team hosting to the tournament but not competing in it, grabbed a front-row seat at TD Arena. He was greeted with a salute and a handshake from referee Ted Hillary, and chatted it up with a variety of fans and fellow coaches alike. As the first half winded down, Tulsa took control, using Maduka’s controlling 6’11” size to get to the rim with ease. Their 18 points in the paint and seven off of the fast break were the difference, as Tulsa ended the first half in commanding fashion, garnering a 38-25 lead, their largest of the game to that point.
The second half began much like the first half ended: Tulsa driving to the basket and finishing, with Western Kentucky doing the same, but coming up empty-handed. Just four minutes into the second half, Tulsa had widened the gap to 20. WKU head coach Ken McDonald’s choice to double-team Maduka opened up other opportunities for the Hurricane, and they took advantage, continuing their domination in the post with senior D.J. Magley and Scottie Haralson making Hilltopper defenders look like small children. Western Kentucky’s inability to get anything going down low meant resorting to the three ball, which just weren’t falling. Intermittent buckets from freshman Derrick Gordon and Kevin Kaspar didn’t amount to much, as Tulsa retained a favorable lead for the majority of the second half. With 3:07 left to play, Maduka prolonged his dominating power in the paint, enlarging the lead to 62-42.
Tulsa never relinquished their first half lead but instead added to it, sealing a first round victory with the final score of 65-49. In the end, Tulsa’s big men were simply too much for Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers were outsized and outmatched, with the final comparison of points in the paint weighing heavily in Tulsa’s favor, 32-14. Kodi Maduka established himself as a threat, displaying nifty post moves and powerful slams, finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. Tulsa will face the winner of Thursday’s second game, LSU versus Northwestern, arguably the most enticing match-up of day one.