Another two minutes and the Winthrop Eagles might not have pulled it off.
But college basketball games are only 40 minutes, which Wednesday night proved long enough for Pat Kelsey’s team to upset the cold-shooting Charleston Southern Buccaneers 70-65 at the Coliseum.
Kelsey’s message to his team after disappointing losses to UNC Asheville and Longwood, and a season-ending wrist injury to forward Larry Brown, was to not let the season spiral out of control.
“It would have been easy for our guys to hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves,” Kelsey said, “but our guys believed when they took the floor they could win. I want to give our players a lot of credit.”
The Bucs (13-9, 8-3), the NCAA’s most prolific 3-point shooting team, only hit three of their 27 attempts, and shot just 32 percent from the field overall. Winthrop (11-12, 5-7) had a point to prove after Saturday’s disappointing loss to Longwood, and it did so primarily through defense.
“Longwood is a good team, but I was embarrassed,” said junior forward Joab Jerome. “The whole team was embarrassed. It was tough showing our faces around campus.”
Winthrop led by as much as 17 during the second half, a jumper from Andre Smith putting the Eagles ahead 49-32 with 9 minutes, 11 seconds left. Charleston Southern chipped and chipped and eventually closed to 65-62 on a Saah Nimley 3 from the corner with 17.6 seconds remaining. Winthrop was cool in the crunch, though, converting eight of its nine free throws during the final two minutes to prolong the Eagles’ 11-year home winning streak against the Bucs.
“I was thinking ‘Will that clock stinking run?’ ” Kelsey said about the waning minutes. “They were gonna make a run, and our guys got a little tentative. But when push came to shove, guys got fouled and we stepped up and made some free throws.”
Charleston Southern forced 19 turnovers, converting those into 25 points. And while the Bucs couldn’t hit from outside, they did pull down 13 offensive rebounds and scored 12 second-chance points. Ultimately, those weren’t enough to overcome an atrocious shooting night for a team that relies upon a high volume, not high percentage, of 3-point makes.
“We’ll watch on film and I bet 10 or 11 open looks from 3 don’t go in,” said Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radabaugh. “Certainly if we make our normal amount, then we’re in good shape.”
Nimley, the Bucs’ floor general, scored 24 points, but he only hit two of 11 from behind the arc, a credit to Winthrop guards Reggie King and Smith, who constantly pestered one of the best scorers in the Big South.
“He’s small, so it’s definitely important to challenge all of his shots,” Smith said. “We switched our (big men) on him and they did a good job challenging his shot. And also making him work on defense as well.”
Smith certainly tested Nimley defensively, scoring a Winthrop-high 20 points with 4-for-6 shooting from 3-point range. The sophomore guard is developing into the Eagles’ big-shot guy, and he hit several during the second half Wednesday night that staved off Charleston Southern’s relentless comeback.
“He made some big shots, and they were all those back-breaking-type 3’s,” Kelsey said. “That’s what big-time shooters do in big moments.”
Jerome added 11 points and 10 rebounds, which Kelsey said was a credit to athletic trainer Jeff Lahr. Jerome turned his ankle late in practice Tuesday but nearly 24-hour treatment had the junior ready to go against Charleston Southern.
“Those type guys that are behind the scenes don’t get they credit they deserve,” said Kelsey. “But if Joey (Jerome) doesn’t play, we don’t win that game.”
Jerome helped fill the void left by Brown’s injury, as did junior reserve Steve Johnson, who had nine points and five , and senior Gideon Gamble, who scored seven and had nine rebounds in a starting role before fouling out.
The Bucs dug their hole with a dismal first half. The visitors shot 27 percent during the first 20 minutes (8-for-30), including just 1-for-12 from 3-point range. Charleston Southern came into the game leading the nation in 3s made per game with 9.6, but it finished the half with just one assist and a whole bunch of bricks.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032 Twitter: @BretJust1T