Four days after burning the nets off the rims at Winthrop Coliseum, the Winthrop Eagles shot 28 percent from the floor in a 56-51 loss to visiting Gardner-Webb.
Pat Kelsey’s club hit 15 3-pointers in Saturday’s momentum-building blowout of Charleston Southern, but made just 4 of 20 from deep, and 15 shots total, during Wednesday’s night disappointing loss.
“I can’t say enough about our guys defensively,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “For a team that made 15 3’s and really shoots the ball well, that was our emphasis to guard the arc. Our goal was to hold them under five 3-pointers made and we were able to do that.”
Keon Moore led Winthrop (8-7, 2-1 in Big South) with 20 points, seven rebounds, five steals and two blocks, but he only hit one of his first seven shots and never really felt the kind of shooting rhythm he had Saturday when he hit 5 of 7 from beyond the arc. Naji Hibbert led Gardner-Webb (8-10, 1-2) with 11 points, and Tyrell Nelson, Jerome Hill and Donta Harper combined for 28 points and 21 rebounds inside. Late on, the Runnin’ Bulldogs took advantage of Winthrop’s foul trouble by relying on their interior scoring and trips to the foul line to pull out the win.
“We knew they wanted to attack us at the box, as we call it. They were gonna try and throw the ball in the post to Jerome Hill,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “He was a big concern of mine. Harper is a violent right-hand driver and a couple times late in the half, late in the possession, we let him get loose and drive and score at the rim, and those were really, really big baskets.”
Gardner-Webb only shot 38 percent and hit just 3 of 14 from 3-point territory. But Winthrop’s offensive struggles were far more surprising. The Eagles were averaging over 79 points per game at home this season, while Gardner-Webb had surrendered 81 points in each of its first two Big South games, a pair of losses. Kelsey felt that when his team opened the game slowly and missed some shots, including wide open lay ups to begin each half, it impacted their self-belief.
“You could see them gain confidence, and us sort of lose confidence as our offensive woes continued as the game went on,” said Kelsey. “I thought our lack of making shots effected our disposition as a team, feeling sorry for ourselves a little bit. The game was fun and easy the other day when shots were going in and today was one of those conference, ugly, grind-out, smash-mouth games.”
Winthrop missed senior leader Joab Jerome who was sidelined for the second straight game with his sprained left ankle in a boot. He’s day-to-day at the moment, but Kelsey hopes he’ll be able to play Saturday at Coastal Carolina. The versatile forward would’ve likely helped on both ends of the court in a sloppy game. The two teams combined for one field goal in the first four minutes of the contest, a weather-vane for what kind of night was in store.
The teams swapped the lead in the first nine minutes of the second half, before Gardner-Webb took control. Craft’s crew outscored the Eagles 11-4 during a nearly five-minute stretch to take a 46-40 lead with about six minutes remaining. Hill hit six straight free throws during the spurt and Harper suddenly came alive after being held scoreless the first 30 minutes of the game, scoring all nine of his points in the last 10 minutes.
Winthrop was able to hang in, Moore stroking a pull-up jumper and James Bourne converting an offensive rebound into two points, part of his 10 points and nine boards in the game. Both those buckets cut the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ lead to three points, and Winthrop had a chance to scythe into that further around the 2-minute mark after a defensive stop. But Andre Smith missed a look from 3-point range and Bourne missed the front end of a one-and-one. Nelson then kissed a shot high off the glass at the other end to stretch the lead to 54-49, and after Moore scored quickly, Gardner-Webb freshman Josh Castellanos calmly floated in a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to ice the win.
It was a big one for Gardner-Webb, after opening the conference schedule with two home losses.
“Their staff, their players came in with a sense of desperation, you could tell,” said Kelsey. “That’s a big win for them; give them credit.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T