CONWAY — By Bret McCormick
A stunning 8-minute scoring drought condemned Winthrop's women to a 79-67 loss to Longwood Friday in the second round of the Big South Conference tournament in Conway, S.C. Dequesha McClanahan's bucket with 8 minutes, 16 seconds left was the No. 2-seeded Eagles' last bucket before a barren stretch in which the No. 7 seed Lancers out-scored them 21-0 and took control of a tight game.
They shot the ball very well, said Winthrop coach Kevin Cook, and we couldn't get key stops when we needed them. They caught fire, and from there it snowballed.
Longwood (13-18) was picked to finish last in the conference's preseason poll, but will play in the semifinals Saturday, an impressive feat in the school's first year in the Big South.
It actually.... yeah, it feels great, said Longwood's Crystal Smith, a bit overcome by it all.
Perhaps more shocking than the Lancers' progression in their maiden conference tournament was the manner of Winthrop's capitulation. The Eagles (20-11) missed all 13 of their field goal attempts during the 8-minute drought, as well as their four attempts from the free throw line. For a team with so much offensive firepower, it was a jaw-dropping way to go out.
Their defense tightened up, said Cook, when asked what contributed to the 8-minute scoring dearth. You get shots to go down, it gives you a little bit more energy to play on the other end.
Winthrop's repeat Big South Player of the Year Dequesha McClanahan led all scorers with 23 points, but she only hit 10 of 29 shots from the floor and turned the ball over nine times. Diana Choibekova added 16 points and 11 rebounds and freshman Aliyah Kilpatrick scored 20, but outside of those three players, Winthrop got just 8 points from six other players.
Longwood's offense was led by Smith's 18 points, and Chelsea Coward, who scored 17 on 5 of 7 3-point shooting, part of the Lancers' 12 of 26 effort from 3-point range. Coward faced a height disadvantage against Winthrop's 6-foot-3 Freshman of the Year Schaquilla Nunn, but her 3-point shooting seemed to draw Nunn out of the paint a bit, allowing the Lancers' guards to get inside for easy buckets in the second half.
Longwood does a nice job of spreading you out, said Cook. They create some mismatches. On the flip side, they have to guard us down low, and we didn't produce from the post.
I've been battling bigger girls all year, said Coward afterward. I think it's hard playing a smaller girl, so I think it was a little difficult for her.
Coward faced a tougher task on the defensive end, especially keeping Winthrop's guards out of the lane. The Eagles had a 34-22 advantage scoring in the paint, most of that courtesy of dribble-drives and blow-bys off the bounce, with Kilpatrick and McClanahan proving especially unstoppable.
Longwood narrowed its defensive focus at halftime, and ultimately choked out the Eagles' two best sources of scoring to win the second 20 minutes convincingly, 47-29.
We spoke about not getting beat by Choibekova shooting 3's and not getting beat by dribble penetration, said Longwood coach Bill Reinson. Once we did that, it made it very difficult for them.
Winthrop led by as many as 12 points in the first half, and threatened to run away with the game on multiple occasions. But Longwood clung to the Eagles like a sandspur until the last 10 minutes of the contest. After McClanahan's bucket put Winthrop up 62-58 with 8 minutes, 16 seconds left, the Lancers made their move, clamping down on defense, while hitting some back-breaking shots at the other end.
Khalilah Ali's layup with 5 minutes, 4 seconds left gave Longwood its first lead since 3-2 in the game's opening moments, and Coward added to the advantage with a 3 that made it 66-62 with just under 4 minutes to go. Smith's bucket made it 68-62, and the Lancers incrementally cranked up Winthrop's growing anxiety by knocking down free throws late. Reinson's team only made 19 of 31 foul shots, but 12 of those came in the last 8 minutes when the Eagle offense went silent. A point here, and two there gradually snowballed the momentum in the underdogs' favor.
Reinson and his team could sense the Eagles pressing, something the Lancers struggled with at times this season. I think they could see it in someone else, he said about his players.
Kilpatrick's 3-pointer rolled went through with 13.8 seconds left, mercifully ending the scoring drought, but far too late for the outcome to be affected. Longwood faces the winner of UNC Asheville and Presbyterian in Saturday's 6 p.m. semifinal. Cook said his team will find out Monday, March 18 whether it will be playing postseason basketball in either the Women's Basketball Invitational or the Women's NIT.
That's our hope, Cook said. We don't want to end our season right here.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T