Winthrop and Radford cross swords Tuesday at noon in the opening game of the Big South Conference mens basketball tournament at the HTC Center in Myrtle Beach.
The matchup reacquaints a pair of teams that contested one of the leagues tightest regular season contests, a 58-57 Highlanders win in Virginia on Jan. 26. The Eagles coughed up a late lead in the game before failing to get off a shot with a chance to win on the last possession.
It was disappointing, said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. We had opportunities to win the game, and they made the plays down the stretch.
In the first meeting, an Andre Smith III put Winthrop in front, 57-56, with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining. With 52.7 seconds left R.J. Price then spun into the lane and finished with a layup to give the Highlanders a 58-57 lead.
After a pair of missed shots by Winthrop, Price had the chance to increase Radfords lead but missed the front end of a one-and-one with 21 seconds left, setting up the fateful final play. Winthrop junior Joab Jerome drove the lane, but lost the ball in traffic and the Highlanders escaped with a 58-57 win. It was a dismal ending for Jerome in a game where he shot 1 of 5 from the field and 1 for 4 from the foul line.
Nobodys perfect, said Kelsey, referring to Jerome. It wasnt his best game up at Radford, so Im sure hes excited about not only getting a chance to avenge not his best performance, but obviously a big, big tournament win and a chance to advance.
More on Jerome later, but the brutal stat that stood out after the Eagles loss to Radford (13-18, 7-9) was turnovers. Winthrop (13-16, 6-10) had 13 in the game, which isnt terrible. But the nature of their giveaways and when and where on the court they happened multiplied the damage they inflicted.
A pair of turnovers between the 2- and 3-minute marks in the loss to Radford led to a 3-pointer and a 3-point play, momentum swingers that hauled the Highlanders back into a game they looked out of. On Tuesday, the Eagles must avoid turnovers, but perhaps more importantly they need to steer clear of pick-six turnovers, similar to a quarterback throwing an interception thats returned for a touchdown.
We cant give them easy points off turnovers, Kelsey reiterated. Id rather if we made a turnover, to kick it up into the 27th row.
Radford has some quick hands on defense, ranking 29th in the NCAA in steals per game (8.7) and forcing a number of turnovers with an assertive defensive style.
Coach always says dont let them bully you, because Radford, theyre really physical, they like to bully people out of what they want to run, said Jerome. Weve got to be patient and get the ball where we want.
The Highlanders consistent shortcoming this season has been at the offensive end, a fact thats caught up with them in a recent slide of four losses in five games. Mike Jones crew shoots less than 40 percent from the field, including just 31.7 percent from 3-point range; Price has made 82 of the teams 191 total 3s, but even he is only 10 for 40 in his last five games. During that same stretch, the Highlanders as a unit have made just 22 of 94 triples (23 percent). Without the steals and turnovers, buckets are hard to come by for the Highlanders.
At times, Javonte Green has been a one-man offensive show for Radford. The 6-foot-4 sophomore averages 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, while shooting over 51 percent from the field. Greens 2.1 steals per game, second best in the league, and three offensive rebounds per game contribute to his high shooting percentage.
Green scored 26 against Winthrop in the first meeting, including 20 in the first half. The Eagles will have to defend the recent second team all-conference selection sophomore much better if theyre to advance to the second round of the Big South tourney.
He scores in a lot of different ways, said Kelsey. Hes very good in transition, around the rim. Hes good catching the ball in the post, stepping out and facing, or driving the ball. Hes an extremely talented player.
Winthrop might catch Radford at the right time. Green is one of nine underclassmen on the team and, true to their youth, the Highlanders look like a team thats hit a late season rut. Included in that slump are losses to Longwood, Siena and Liberty, teams with a combined 25-67 record this year.
In one of the games subplots, the Highlanders look ripe for Jerome to settle a personal score. The 6-foot-5 forward has stepped to the fore with Winthrops leading rebounder (Larry Brown) and scorer (Derrick Henry) lost for the season with injury in the last month. Jerome has led the Eagles in scoring the last five games by sticking to what he does best: attacking the rim and/or getting fouled. Hes shot 60 free throws in the last seven games alone, while taking his scoring average from around 8 points per game up to 10.1.
Jerome certainly would have taken a foul on the unsuccessful final drive against Radford in late January. Monday after practice, he seemed very pleased that the Highlanders stood between Winthrop and a possible second round matchup with Charleston Southern.
I was excited because I knew what happened at Radford, he said. Radford is a great team; they have great defenders. Im just ready to go.
If Tuesdays game comes down to the last second again, dont be surprised to see a very confident Jerome with the ball. Playing so well of late, what would he do with a second chance?
Its a different outcome, he said quietly. Its a different outcome this time.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T