A tactical focus helped Winthrop choke off Liberty’s prime source of offense in a 66-56 win Saturday night. It was Winthrop’s second win in a row, and fourth straight victory at the Coliseum, and as usual the win came courtesy of defensive effort. The Eagles (10-11, 4-5) held Liberty (7-16, 3-6), the conference’s best 3-point shooting team, to just 3 of 20 from beyond the arc.
“You say defending the three, and it’s not as easy as just standing next to the guy and not letting him get 3-point looks,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said after the game.
He and his coaching staff were concerned about the Flames’ ability to penetrate and kick out to shooters, the main offensive vein for a team shooting nearly 38 percent from three.
“Our focus was on guarding the ball so that we didn’t have to over-help in our gaps. I think the emphasis of really being stalwarts on the ball and not getting beat in straight lines allowed us to keep our gap integrity and be there on the catch.”
Davon Marshall and John Caleb Sanders, two of the Flames’ best, were a combined 1 of 11 from distance, while Dale Layer’s team finished with just six assists.
“We knew they had great 3-point shooters and yeah, they missed some open ones, but I think for the most part we contested the majority of their 3-point shots, were able to make it challenging,” said sophomore guard Derrick Henry.
After a 0-3 start in league play, Winthrop has held its past six opponents to just 55.1 points per game. The Eagles gave up 70-plus points in each of the three losses to start Big South play, but have re-honed their mindset on stopping opponents.
“You guys come to practice and you see coach Kelsey and his energy; it’s all about defense,” said junior Joab Jerome. “As long as you play defense for coach Kelsey, you’ll get to play offense.”
The Eagles were offensively efficient, assisting on 13 of their 26 field goals and only turning the ball over eight times. Jerome led Winthrop with a season-high 18 points, while Henry pitched in 15, his third straight game in double figures after failing to do so in the first six conference games. Henry only hit 11 of his 46 shots in those first six games, but is a solid 14 of 31 from the floor in his past three outings.
“I have to thank my teammates and coaches,” he said. “They haven’t lost faith in me or confidence in me.”
Larry Brown chipped in 10 points and 10 boards, his first career double-double, helping the Eagles hold their own in the paint against a tall, muscular Liberty front line. Winthrop players and coaches constantly cite their mantra of “next man up,” and Saturday night was Brown and senior Shola Diop’s turn. With Steve Johnson sidelined because of a corneal abrasion (essentially a scratched eye), and James Bourne hampered with foul trouble, Diop, the 6-foot-10 big man, scored 4 points and had 3 rebounds in 19 minutes, giving the Eagles valuable time on the floor.
“Felt good,” Diop said afterward. “It’s always good to contribute. Everyone on the bench is always ready to come, ready to bring energy and give a lift.”
Winthrop led by just three at the half, but was able to put the game away in the second half thanks to 15 of 25 (60 percent) shooting from the field. The Eagles built 9-point leads twice in the first eight minutes of the decisive half, but each time Liberty clawed back into the contest.
A bucket by Tomasz Gielo got the visitors to within three at 52-49, but Winthrop answered with less than five minutes remaining. Jerome scored inside and patient ball movement around the perimeter eventually freed up Henry in the corner to rain in a triple for a 57-49 lead with 4 minutes, 27 seconds left.
“Difference in the game was they made shots and we didn’t,” said Liberty coach Dale Layer. “When it’s late and it’s a one or two-possession game and they make two big plays back-to-back, it kind of put them over the hump.”
Out of the last media timeout, Winthrop put the visitors away. Jerome drilled in a jumper from the foul line, Andre Smith knocked in a 3-pointer and Brown finished strong in the paint for a 64-51 lead with 1 minute, 41 seconds left, all but snuffing out Liberty’s hopes of a third win in four games.
The Flames got off to an, ahem, hot start, hitting four of their first six shots from the floor. Three of those buckets came within feet of the rim, as J.R. Coronado announced his presence early with a finish inside before converting a muscular offensive rebound into two more points and a 6-2 lead. Sanders scraped off a screen and chucked in a triple, and Tavares Speaks’ pair of free throws put the visitors up 11-4 with 5 minutes, 42 seconds played.
Liberty went cold for much of the rest of the half, though, hitting just 4 of their next 22 attempts from the field. During a 7-minute spell, Winthrop outscored Layer’s club 17-4 to cop a 21-15 lead. Henry canned a three, and Gideon Gamble took a steal the other way, finding Jerome for a transition deuce and Winthrop’s first lead (15-13) with 8 minutes, 21 seconds left in the half.
The hosts built the lead up to as much as seven when Brown flushed a miss by Henry, and Henry banged in another three to make it 24-17. Liberty closed the gap before the half, scoring twice inside, but Brown’s bucket before the horn ensured the Eagles had a 26-23 lead at the intermission, one they held the remainder of the contest.
|WINTHROP 66, LIBERTY 56|
Percentages: FG .339, FT .938. 3-Point Goals: 3-20, .150 (Roberts 1-4, Marshall 1-5, Sanders 1-6, Gielo 0-5). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 1 (Vander Pol). Turnovers: 7 (Sanders 3, Marshall, Coronado, Vander Pol, Gielo). Steals: 3 (Vander Pol, Smith, Sanders). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .456, FT .583. 3-Point Goals: 7-16, .438 (Henry 3-5, Jerome 1-2, Gamble 1-2, Smith 1-3, Farmer 1-4). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 3 (Brown 2, Smith). Turnovers: 8 (Smith 3, Jerome 2, Bourne, Gamble, Henry). Steals: 5 (Gamble, King, Brown, Diop, Henry). Technical Fouls: None.
Att.–2,168. Officials–Steve Coleman, A.J. Desai, Matt DiPiro.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T