ROCK HILL — A tweet making its way around the Twittersphere earlier this week implored fans to jump on the Winthrop womens basketball bandwagon ahead of their 1 p.m. home game against Campbell on Saturday.
Dont be scared, the message encouraged, just jump on.
Such is the plight of a lower profile Division I womens hoops, even if it is currently on a school-best eight-game winning streak, six of which were road games.
The Eagles started the year 7-8 during a difficult stretch with 11 of the first 15 games played on the road.
But lid-shutting defense has characterized Winthrops recent red-hot run, a definite shift in tack for a team that possesses acute offensive firepower.
Our winning streak is mainly because of our defense, said senior shooting guard Diana Choibekova. We could score; we just didnt have the defensive part in the beginning of the year. Now, I feel like were really getting there.
Winthrop coach Kevin Cook agrees, though he added, it took us longer than we wanted.
The Eagles have only allowed 55.1 points per game during the eight-game streak, while theyre scoring more than 73 per outing in the same stretch. Opposing teams are shooting just 27 percent from the 3-point line and 34 percent from the field during the streak, while Winthrop has out-rebounded its past five foes by a combined 66. Cook felt his teams change in mentality prompted the sudden defensive meanness.
The biggest difference has been our players attitudes about wanting to play defense, he said after Thursdays practice. All of the credit goes to the players for adopting that mindset.
The addition of two freshmen has helped raise the clubs defense to a stingier level. In conference play, 6-foot-3 center Schaquilla Nunn leads the league in rebounding (12.2) and is second in blocked shots (3.2), while Kilpatrick is the top ball-stealer (3.1) with 29 steals in the past nine games. Winthrops all-around standout and leading scorer, junior Dequesha McClanahan, is also a defensive pest, ranking fourth in the league in steals (2.5).
But the freshmen have been vital; Nunns presence enables the guards to take more risks, to be more aggressive, while Kilpatricks on-ball pestering disrupts opponents offensive rhythms.
She can just guard, Cook said about Kilpatrick. And then when you add the presence of Nunn, if we do happen to have a breakdown, weve got a big tree.
Early aggression has sparked good starts for the Eagles during the last month. Winthrop has led each of the past eight games at halftime; in the last six theyve gone into the locker room with an average 13-point lead (36-23).
Were ready from the start, so thats helping us out, Choibekova said. Were getting good leads, were getting confidence and then were just dogging everyone on defense.
Its a coachs dream when defensive effort bleeds into the bucket-gettin end of the court. The Eagles scored more than 70 points in each of the past five games, and they didnt shoot below 41 percent from the field in any of those contests. Any discussion of Winthrops offensive success begins with McClanahan, the player who has the ball in her hands every play. She leads the Big South in scoring (18.3) and assists (6.1), has 10 20-plus point efforts this season, and is an unassuming leader in a team full of them.
Dequeshas one of the best players in the country, said Choibekova, whos ranked 12th nationally in 3-pointer made per game (3.1). Shes been having more games as far as numbers, but shes always the best player on the court.
McClanahan, the defending Big South Player of the Year and likely favorite to repeat, is known to stay after practice and work by herself for half an hour. Thursday afternoon, Choibekova was getting up shots with assistant coach Christena Hamilton long after practice had finished.
To be this deep into the season, and have several players wanting to stay and work extra on their game, that makes you feel good as a coach, Cook explained. We havent had any practices where Ive had to get after them, because theyre doing everything I ask.
In stretches good and bad, the teams atmosphere has been relaxed and focused. Cook, a veteran coach in his first season as Winthrops head man, has the countenance of a late night public radio jazz host. He knows how to get the best out of his team, quietly delivering one-on-one motivations and pointers.
Our coach doesnt blow up, said Choibekova, the squads lone senior. He just has the best vibe and we just love playing for him. He tells us he wants us to play great defense, so we do it for him and we do it for the team.
There is a quiet buzz around Winthrops camp that it can win the schools first regular season conference title. The Eagles (15-8 overall) are now 9-2 in the Big South, tying them with 13-time champion Liberty at the conferences summit. Winthrop has a backloaded home schedule, meaning it will get its last four regular season games at home with a potential conference championship on the line.
To me, you gotta talk about winning championships, Cook said. If you dont talk about them, how can you dream it? If you cant dream it, how can you believe it? If you dont believe it, its not gonna happen.
Cooks thought sounded like it came straight from a coaches clinic; more likely it didnt. Even if there are whole sections on their bandwagon still vacant, the coach and his players believe they can unlock Libertys grip on the league and win a championship.
Were still growing our culture here, Cook said. But we dont want to wait. Why not Winthrop? Why not now?
Bret McCormick 329-4032 Twitter: @BretJust1T