Facing what their coach called “an avalanche rebounding team,” Winthrop men’s basketball players know finding their opponents and putting rear ends on them will be the primary way to stave off the impending rush.
The Eagles (12-15, 5-9 Big South) head to Coastal Carolina (13-13, 8-6) to face the Chanticleers in the Big South regular season’s penultimate contest Wednesday night at the HTC Center in Conway. Cleaning the glass will be imperative if Pat Kelsey’s team is to break its unseemly 10-game road losing streak in conference play.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge,” said Kelsey, “because they’re the elite offensive rebounding team in our league, and I don’t even think it’s really close.”
Winthrop battered Coastal on the boards in the two sides’ first meeting, a 61-48 win for the Eagles. Winthrop grabbed 39 rebounds to the visitors’ 27, and had a 14-7 offensive rebound advantage. Coastal coach Cliff Ellis credited the Eagles’ effort afterward, saying, “This is the first time we’ve been beaten like this on the boards.”
The Eagles’ plus-12 in the rebound column was the largest the Chanticleers have surrendered this year in conference play. They lead the Big South in rebounding margin (plus-5.9), offensive rebounding percentage (grabbing 38.4 percent of the rebounds off their opponents’ defensive backboard) and have scored a withering 61 more second-chance points than the opposition.
The Chanticleers are one of seven teams still vying for the final two first round byes in the Big South tournament, being played next week on Coastal’s home floor. Ellis’ team, though wildly inconsistent this season, still has a chance to rest the first day of the tournament. If the Eagles can pull off another rebounding victory, they may very well rear-end the Chanticleers into a first round matchup.
“Our effectiveness at boxing them out on every single shot, all five guys on every possession, is paramount to winning this game,” Kelsey explained. “Because they can absolutely punish you on every single shot on the backboard.”
Redshirt senior Gideon Gamble said Monday Winthrop’s rebounding dominance in the first encounter was down to, “just paying attention to detail.” Without Larry Brown, the team’s leading rebounder, others will have to help shoulder the load. Post players Shola Diop and James Bourne are the immediate candidates, but it’s a team responsibility and Kelsey specifically said he’ll need eight to 10 rebounds combined from the guards. Andre Smith had seven boards from that spot in the first meeting, success the sophomore will try to repeat. As Gamble pointed out, “We have to really be on it. Our margin for error is much smaller now.”
Joab Jerome also had eight rebounds during the game in Rock Hill, and lately, the 6-foot-5 junior has been doing a little of everything. Jerome’s offensive output has picked up since leading scorer Derrick Henry was ruled out with an ACL tear; he’s leading the Eagles in scoring the past four games and averaging 14.8 points in his last five outings.
“Joey’s been a rock, an absolute rock,” Kelsey said. “We preach consistency and that kid has been consistent, not only in his play but in his attitude. … whether we ask him to play the point or the ‘four,’ he’s done it with a smile on his face and without a complaint.”
Winthrop held the Chants to an 0.81 offensive efficiency rating in late January, the team’s third best tempo-free defensive performance of the season (against Division I competition). For comparison’s sake, they allowed Virginia Commonwealth to average 1.38 points per possession in a 90-54 loss in November.
Winthrop’s fourth best tempo-free defensive effort of the season came last Saturday when the Eagles stymied Southeastern Louisiana in the second half of a 66-52 victory. The win lifted the late-season haze of several crummy losses and disappointing season-ending injuries, and offered a positive change of disposition heading into the trying final weeks.
“It gives us some momentum,” said Bourne. “They’re really a good team that we played two days ago, so it was a good confidence booster for us.”
Big South standings
*Note: High Point has already clinched the North Division; Charleston Southern has clinched at least a tie for first in the South. The top two teams in each division receive a first round bye in the conference tournament.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T