Winthrop soured former Great Falls standout Torrey Craig’s semi-homecoming by pulling out an 82-74 win over USC Upstate on Wednesday night at Winthrop Coliseum.
Craig made the most of his return to the area, tying a career-high with 31 points on 11-of-20 shooting and showing why professional scouts are keeping tabs on his array of peanut butter-smooth offensive moves.
But Winthrop, which is 2-0 for the first time since the 2007-08 season, got a balanced offensive effort, especially from senior Joab Jerome and junior Andre Smith, who led the Eagles with 21 points. Jerome was all-action, scoring 19, grabbing five rebounds, and doling out six assists. He also had a crucial shot block late in the game when Upstate (1-1) had cut Winthrop’s lead to two possessions with just over two minutes left.
“They’re a really good team and they’re really well coached, and we knew they weren’t going to go away,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “We knew that run was coming. We have a lot of competitive kids in that locker room that have competitive toughness, and they weathered it and they found a way to get the ‘W.’”
Craig and Ty Greene (21) combined to score 52 of Upstate’s 74 points. With a horde of Great Falls supporters in the stands, Craig put on the kind of individual show fans paid to see.
“He’s really good; he might be a pro,” said Kelsey. “Joey (Jerome) did a great job on him in the second half. We talked about making him more of a driver. You can be on him and even contest the shot, but he’s 6-foot-7 and he just shoots over the top of you. So, we really tried to climb into him and make him drive the ball.”
Thanks to increased depth in the Winthrop ranks this season, the Eagles’ go-to guys, Jerome and Smith, were fresh late in the game. Good thing, because Upstate made a late run to shave an 11-point Eagles lead to 75-72 with 2:17 left in the contest. Kelsey’s team stiffened from there, holding the visitors without a field goal for the rest of the game. The victory over a team that had just beaten Virginia Tech on the road felt like validation for the Eagles, even this early in the season.
“We’re tougher than people think,” said Smith. “They came in with a lot of big guys on the roster and we out-rebounded them. I think it says we’re better than people think.”
While Upstate relied largely on two players, Winthrop outscored the Spartans 25-6 in bench points, further testament to the squad’s increased depth. Walk-on Tevin Prescott was in double figures for the second game in a row, scoring 10, while the 82 points was the most Winthrop has scored against a Division I foe since the 2011-12 season.
“The way we’re playing now, people get tired and get a sub and that next guy coming in is just as good as the first guy,” said Smith. “We needed that this game. A lot of guys in shape, and a lot of stops late in the game really helped us.”
With the game tied 39 all at halftime, Kelsey said he and his team discussed attacking the rim, and the second half bore that out. The Eagles shot 56 percent from the field in the second 20 minutes, and doubled up the Spartans in free-throw attempts (28 to 15). Winthrop was 4-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half, but hit four of the just six shots they attempted from that range in the second period.
“We had a hard time keeping them out of the paint,” said Eddie Payne, Upstate’s coach.
An 11-2 run for the Eagles near the 13-minute mark of the second half gave them a 56-48 advantage. Jerome scored six straight points during the burst, and the Eagles cleaned the glass to limit the Spartans to one shot per possession at most. After giving up 17 offensive boards to Division III Roanoke College last Saturday, Winthrop held Upstate to just six offensive rebounds.
Coinciding with Winthrop’s run into the lead, Craig went quiet. He scored just two points, a pair of foul shots, in the first 12 minutes of the second half.
“They turned up the pressure and you could tell they were more physical,” he said afterward.
Upstate had one last run in the tank. Craig finally hit a field goal with eight minutes left, and he heated up quickly scoring 10 points in the last 7 minutes of the game. But trailing 75-72, Ricardo Glenn fumbled an entry pass out of bounds and Craig was whistled for traveling. Craig then clanged a 3 off the front of the rim and Winthrop was able to pull away late.
“I thought we had two bad possessions down three late in the game,” said Payne. “Bad possessions. When you’re playing a tough team on the road, you’ve got to be able to get better shots.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T