Winthrop played just another close game on Tuesday night in the Winthrop Coliseum, doing what they'd done the past three games -- come from behind.
But the Eagles added a little twist to this one, falling behind by 27 in the first half, trailing 42-19 at the break, then storming back with defense and 51 percent shooting to beat Charleston Southern 57-52.
You could call it a tale of two halves. In the case of the Bucs (8-19, 3-13 Big South) you could call it a fairytale first half, a horror-flick second. They shot 70 percent in the first half, making shots no normal player could make. In the second, with the Eagles a little more attentive on the defensive end, the Bucs made just four field goals, shot 14 percent and scored just 10 points.
Winthrop won its fourth straight game to move to 8-9 in the league with one game to play, and 10-18 overall. It kept the Eagles' shot at a fifth-place finish alive and may have eliminated the Bucs from next week's conference tournament.
"No," Bucs coach Barclay Radebaugh said, "I've never seen that in my career, play so well in the first half and then play that way in the second."
Winthrop coach Randy Peele said he "couldn't remember a bigger comeback in my career."
"Again, we came back and won a close game."
But this one wasn't like the others by a long shot.
The Eagles actually led 5-0 before the Bucs started dropping shots on them from anywhere and everywhere. By halftime, the Bucs had made 17 of 24 shots, 70.8 percent, including all eight of their 3-pointers, and led by that astounding 42-19 margin. The Eagles, who shot a tepid 28 percent, had to go on a 6-2 run in the final three minutes to get that close.
It's not that the Eagles' defense was that bad. The Bucs were playing like it was a summer game on the blacktop, winners staying up. They were loose and confident and dropping jumpers like stones in Lake Wylie.
Nothing typified the first half more than one shot from 5-foot-8 Jamarco Warren, who was being guarded by 6-5 Mantoris Robinson. Warren drove into the lane, went up and there was Robinson, arm extended in his grill. Warren, on his way down, double pumped while falling backward and dropped the shot like he was running a layup drill.
"They hit tough shots with hands in their face," said Winthrop's George Valentine, who continued his improved play with a career-high 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting and added six rebounds.
Twice Warren made step-back 25-footers, and Omar Carter made two 3-pointers with a defender in his face. By the half, Carter had 20 points, Warren 16.
Radebaugh admitted some of the shots were questionable, but they were going down.
"We had Jamarco and Omar making those shots," he said. "We've never had them both make them at the same time. But we knew in the second half, it would take better execution."
Peele was not happy with the defense in the first half.
"We got impatient, got frustrated," he said.
What do you do at the half?
Valentine said Peele threatened another midnight practice if the effort didn't pick up. Andre Jones said they just listened to the team leader, Robinson.
"He just told us we had to defend," Jones said.
And Robinson led by example, shutting down Warren. Robinson also scored 11 points, his first time in double figures in eight games.
And the Eagles also held Carter to two second-half points.
The Eagles turned the game quickly in the second half, with a little help from the Bucs. The defense forced the Bucs into 10 misses in their first 12 shots, and when Jones dropped a 3-pointer with 10:07 left the lead was down to 49-40.
The Bucs were not quite as active on offense. In fact, they appeared to try and slow the game down and milk the clock.
"We wanted to keep pushing it," Radebaugh said. "Winthrop played hard in the second half, and we missed some open shots."
They missed plenty, but still led 52-40 with just over eight minutes to play, after Warren knocked down his only field goal of the second half, a 3-pointer. The Bucs didn't score again -- 16 possessions that included six turnovers and four missed 3-pointers.
Jones, who finished with 19 points, scored seven of the Eagles' next 13 points, including a 3-pointer with 1:50 to go that gave the Eagles the lead for good, 53-52.
Valentine scored in transition to push the lead to 55-52, and the Bucs had one last chance with 16.8 seconds left and Giedrius Knysas at the line for a one-and-one, the Bucs' only free throw chance of the game. A 34 percent free throw shooter, Knysas clanked it.
Charles Corbin hit both shots of a one-and-one with 6.6 seconds to play to seal it.
Valentine said he'd never played a game when his team came back from that kind of deficit and offered the following advice on how to avoid having to do it again.
"Don't ever get behind by that much again," he said, laughing. "Just play better defense."
The Eagles go into Saturday's regular season finale at home against Coastal Carolina with some momentum they hope to carry over into next week's tournament.
"We're the hottest team in the league," Peele said, "and that's how I'll play off this one."
• Box score, BSC standings • 2C
Gary McCann, 329-4074