VMI defeated Winthrop in the opening round of the tournament Tuesday night, prevailing in a 78-73 slugfest at Cameron Hall. Stan Okoye had 23 points, including a clutch three-pointer with 48 seconds to go, and Ron Burks sealed the victory with four free throws in the final minute as VMI advanced to the conference semifinals for the third time in five years.
With the win over Winthrop, VMI’s six-game win streak versus conference foes is its longest such run since 1995-96, when the Keydets defeated seven straight Southern Conference opponents. The team’s 18 total wins is the second-most victories since that season, when VMI won 18 games, and also the second-most wins the team has had since joining the Big South (24 in 2008-09).
The Keydet defense has been the story during the run, as VMI has held opponents to 72.2 points per game during the streak. That included a three-game stretch (including Feb. 19 vs. Morgan State, a non-conference game) where VMI held all opponents under 70 points, the first time that had occurred since the final games of the 2004-05 season.
Unlike VMI and Winthrop, the Keydets and Chanticleers have met often in the postseason. The schools have played in the opening round each of the last two years. VMI won at Cameron Hall in 2008-09, while Coastal Carolina prevailed in Conway last season.
Last Meeting with Coastal Carolina (2/5/11):
Coastal Carolina used a 29-9 edge from the charity stripe to win its 20th straight Big South game, defeating VMI 99-86 on Feb. 5 in Conway. Chad Gray had 22 points for Coastal, while Keith Gabriel led VMI with 21. The Keydets fell behind by as many as 26, but would outscore Coastal 52-46 in the second half thanks to runs of 16-6 and 12-2. Using the momentum gained from that period, VMI has not lost a game versus a conference opponent since.
A VMI win against Coastal Carolina would:
Send VMI to the conference finals for the third time in five years. The Keydets would play the winner of #7 High Point and #3 UNC Asheville, who will contest the early game (6 p.m.) in Conway on Thursday evening. The finals will be played Saturday at 4 p.m., at the home of the highest remaining seed.
Give VMI a chance at its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1976-77.