Winthrop staved off a game, but ultimately not good enough James Madison club Wednesday night 69-57, to improve to 5-1, the team’s best start since the 1980-81 campaign.
Andre Smith led the Eagles with 13 points, four rebounds and three assists, while Joab Jerome added 11. Walk-on Tevin Prescott scored 10, his fourth game out of six in double figures, and freshmen Josh Davenport and Keon Johnson chipped in nine each. Jackson Kent (16) and Ron Curry (15) led the Dukes (2-5) offensively.
Winthrop shot just 29 percent (9-31) in the second half, and accordingly, the visitors cut the lead to 58-52 with about 4 minutes left. But Joab Jerome hit a 3 off a curl, the Dukes were whistled for an offensive foul and a pair of Prescott foul shots were enough to restore order and ensure the victory would be staying in Rock Hill.
“A good team’s not going to go away,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, citing the Dukes’ NCAA tournament appearance last season as evidence of their qualifications.
In James Madison, Winthrop hosted an anomalous opponent. Matt Brady brought to the Coliseum one of the youngest teams in NCAA. Redshirt junior Christian Pearce was the lone upperclassman dressed to play with graduate student Andrey Semenov, the team’s second leading scorer, injured and unable to suit up. The visitors dressed seven freshmen, four sophomores and a junior.
Not just one of the youngest, James Madison is also one of the nation’s tallest teams and its length was problematic Wednesday. The Dukes’ shortest player was 6-foot-4, and their average height was 79 inches, or about 6-foot-6. Winthrop had to earn everything it got in the painted area, but ended up out-scoring James Madison inside 28-26, and out-rebounded them 41-40.
“My biggest concern going into this game was getting looks,” said Kelsey. “They really bother you with their length and their zone. We worked very, very hard on it in the last few days.”
The Eagles made the Dukes work at the other end too. Winthrop created 19 turnovers, including 11 steals, led by Larry Brown and Prescott with two each. Nine of the 10 Eagles that saw the floor had at least one pilfer.
“We’re big on deflections,” said Kelsey. “We play a pack-line defense, which is ball pressure and a crowded floor, but one thing we didn’t do enough last year was touch the ball.”
Maybe it was the weather, but the Eagles endured frigid shooting in the first four minutes of the game, hitting just 1 of 6 as the visitors built an 8-2 lead.
The Dukes started the game in a zone and the home team quickly busted that up, knocking down four straight 3-pointers, three coming from the fingertips of Smith. The last in that bunch, from the left corner off an extra pass from Keon Moore, put Winthrop up 15-9 and forced a James Madison timeout.
The Eagles hit 13 of their last 22 shots after the poor start, and the lead grew to 11 when Brandon Vega capped an 8-point spurt with a steal and a lay-in with 58 seconds left in the half. Winthrop’s lead grew to as much as 14 early in the second half, but the Dukes kept plugging at it, only to be put away late by a team still getting accustomed to being the aggressor.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T