Winthrop will travel to Boiling Springs, N.C., Tuesday night in search of an elusive Big South Conference mens basketball road win. The Eagles are the only team in the league this season without a win away from home during conference play.
Saturday looked like an excellent chance to grab a slippery road victory, but even though Pat Kelseys team shot nearly 54 percent against Presbyterian, the Eagles trailed the entire game and lost 64-57.
They made some tough shots, Kelsey said Monday. A lot of guys that havent scored the ball for them this year hit some big 3s.
Winthrop (11-14, 5-8) will face a surging Gardner-Webb (16-11, 8-5) team Tuesday night that has won three straight, and six of seven, to climb into the midst of the increasingly packed South Division title race. At 8-5, the Runnin Bulldogs trail UNC Asheville (9-4) and Charleston Southern (9-3) in the standings. The top two finishers in each division will receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament in early March.
Theyre playing very well right now, Kelsey said. Theyre playing very confidently and theyre making plays and are very comfortable within their system.
He lauded the Runnin Bulldogs defense, especially the ability to force turnovers. Chris Holtmanns team forces turnovers on 21.9 percent of opponents possessions, tops in the Big South and a stat that has helped the Runnin Bulldogs even as theyre allowing the opposition to shoot 46 percent in conference games, the leagues second-worst mark.
Kelsey said the key for Gardner-Webbs defense is they get their hands on a million balls. They turn you over a lot, but its not because of their full-court pressure, its because of how active their hands are defensively. We got to have great ball security when we drive, when we attack the rim because they do a great job of getting deflections.
Gardner-Webb has outrebounded its past five conference opponents by 29 in games played at Paul Porter Arena. The Runnin Bulldogs dont shoot that well, but they attack the glass, ranking second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, something Winthrop will have to pay close attention to, especially with leading rebounder Larry Brown out for the season with a fractured bone in his wrist.
Its a different dynamic, Kelsey said about playing without Brown. Joab Jerome, a 6-foot-5 junior, has shifted to Browns power forward spot; he scored a season-high 20 points in the loss to Presbyterian and will need to have another solid game like that Tuesday.
Winthrop held off Gardner-Webb 61-55 in the teams meeting Jan. 23 in Rock Hill. The Eagles limited Gardner-Webbs leading scorer at the time, Donta Harper, to just seven points, a key factor in the win. Jerome will be challenged defensively Tuesday by rim-attackers Harper and Tashan Newsome, who leads the Runnin Bulldogs in scoring at about 15 per game. Nearly 60 percent of Gardner-Webbs offensive possessions run through either Newsome or Harper.
Winthrop and Gardner-Webb were separated in the standings by a game when they met earlier in the season. Now, the teams are headed in different directions. Winthrop has dropped three of its past four and faces a challenging final four regular-season games. After Tuesday night, the Eagles will host Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday in a nonconference Bracketbusters game, then travel to Coastal Carolina before ending with UNC Asheville at home.
Gardner-Webb swept UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina this season; Radford was the last team to achieve the feat in the 2008-09 season. A good omen for the Runnin Bulldogs? The Highlanders represented the Big South in the NCAA tournament that season.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T