Winthrop played a pair of diametrically opposite halves of basketball Saturday in the season and home opener against Roanoke. The best 20-minute period was the second and the Eagles emerged with a 93-74 victory over the Maroons in front of a large crowd with a raucous student section.
Freshman Keon Johnson led Pat Kelsey’s team with 19 points, 16 of which came in the second half. There was no fear from the 5-foot-7 guard, the kind of mindset Winthrop’s coach expects from the players he recruits.
“I don’t recruit guys to come in and play three or four years from now,” he said. “They have every single opportunity that everyone else has. That’s what makes our practices so competitive, because somebody could be coming in trying to take your playing time.”
Five other Eagles scored in double figures, including 6-foot-5 walk-on Tevin Prescott, who finished with 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 18 minutes off the pine. Prescott played 11 minutes and scored three points during the entire 2012-13 campaign.
“This summer he just worked out, that’s all he did was work out. You could see today how he improved,” said senior Joab Jerome, adding, “It’s a big lift; it just makes us deeper.”
The Eagles struggled mightily in the first half and were fortunate to be down just three, but a little encouragement from Kelsey at halftime lit a fire under his team.
“I’ll credit our players, I didn’t have to say much. I said a few things. The decibel level was a little bit higher than usual. But things were addressed before I even walked in and that’s a testament to the caliber of leadership in that locker room.”
Putting on a show in front of the kind of large crowd Winthrop enjoyed in the 2000s provided further impetus for the Eagles to get it right in the second half.
“If you’re in print media, put it in bold exclamation marks: they were phenomenal.” Kelsey said. “The student body was on fire. They were everything I asked them to be. They were into it from the second we stepped on the floor.”
Johnson’s 3-pointers and an acrobatic up-and-under lay up drew some of the biggest roars but there were plenty of highlights to go around. Christian Farmer added 17 points for the Eagles, while Jerome chipped in 13, Josh Davenport 12 and Andre Smith 10. Andrew Daniels led Roanoke with 15, one of four Maroons to hit double digits, but Page Moir’s team just ran out of gas in the second half.
That’s when Winthrop found its groove, turnovers leading to a number of transition opportunities at the rim and from 3-point range. Kelsey’s club finished with a 27-12 scoring advantage off of turnovers.
“It’s no secret that we said that’s the brand of basketball we’re going to play going forward,” he said. “We’re gonna push the ball from defense to offense and put pressure on defenses in the first seven seconds of the shot clock and generate those easy baskets.”
Winthrop’s freshmen had a big hand in that. A whiz in the open floor, Johnson led all scorers, while Davenport showed a varied offensive skill set. Rookie forward Jarad Scott led all rebounders with nine in 17 minutes of action.
“I know they were gonna be good since open gym,” said Jerome. “They all came in with confidence and just ready to compete. That’s probably what I like about all of them the most.”
It was a markedly different song in the first half. Winthrop shot less than 40 percent, only made 6 of 12 foul shots and got out-rebounded by the Maroons 28-17. The Division III visitors repeatedly took advantage of sleeping weakside Winthrop defenders, evinced by 10 assists on 15 first half field goals and a 22-14 paint scoring advantage.
“They were incredibly prepared, they executed and they walked in here with confidence and swagger,” said Kelsey.
The Eagles fell behind early, in part because of a five-minute-plus stretch without a field goal, but it was their defensive inattentiveness that allowed Roanoke to build a 29-17 lead with 7 minutes left in the half.
That seemed to spark the hosts. Winthrop out-scored Roanoke 15-5 over the next four-plus minutes to trim the lead to two with 2 minutes, 47 seconds left before the intermission. Smith went coast-to-coast off a missed Roanoke free throw, then found freshman Davenport in transition for a jump-stop and two points. A mid-range jumper from Davenport and a 3-pointer from the elbow by Smith made it 34-32.
Winthrop got to within one on Farmer’s deep 3, but Daniels’ lay-in with 2 seconds left send Roanoke into the half with a deserved 40-37 advantage.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T