Keon Johnson started Saturday evening’s basketball game against Virginia Military Institute on the bench.
But the freshman finished the game on the court, making the biggest play of the night. Johnson’s shot off the backboard with 1.5 seconds left gave Winthrop a thrilling 58-57 win over Virginia Military Institute.
Johnson’s clever finish capped a furious comeback by the hosts, who trailed 37-24 at the halftime break. The Eagles (10-8, 4-2 in the Big South) held VMI (10-10, 3-3), the nation’s leading scoring team at 90 points per game, to its second lowest point total this season. More crucial was Winthrop’s defensive effort in the second 20 minutes, when they held the Keydets to 4 of 21 shooting and clawed back into the contest.
“We have a defensive toughness and we have a belief in our system that even when we’re going through offensive lulls like we did tonight, continuing to really guard, you can stay in a game and win a tough conference game even if your offense isn’t flowing,” said Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey.
Keon Moore was the Eagles’ high scorer with 18 points and nine rebounds, while Joab Jerome scored nine points and grabbed six boards, and freshman Josh Davenport scored five points and pulled in eight rebounds during extensive second-half playing time.
Winthrop missed guard Andre Smith, who was limited to 8 minutes due to a chest cold. Others had to step up for the Eagles and they did, Johnson especially. He came off the bench for the first time this season and still finished with 17 points, none more important than his last two. After Winthrop advanced the ball quickly into the frontcourt and called timeout with 6.7 seconds remaining, Johnson volunteered to take the final shot.
“He’s that type of kid,” said Kelsey. “He’s fearless. He lives his life with a chip on his shoulder because he’s 5-foot-5, maybe.”
The ball was inbounded into the backcourt and Johnson lowered his shoulder to spurt past Q.J. Peterson before driving straight at VMI center D.J. Covington right of the lane, readjusting mid-air and flicking the ball off the glass. VMI still had 1.5 seconds to win the game after Covington’s fullcourt fling landed in Brian Brown’s hands, but his shot, hotly contested by Davenport, rimmed out at the buzzer.
“As far as D-I players, this is the moment to make big plays,” Johnson said afterward. “I just made a big play.”
VMI head coach Duggar Baucom was a bit surprised that Johnson took the decisive shot for Winthrop.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “I also didn’t expect my freshman to push up on him and let him blow by him either. That’s not what I was hoping for. But credit to Johnson, he made an incredible play.”
There was no suggestion at halftime that the game would come down to a last-second shot. True to its widely known philosophy, VMI came out firing and raced to an 11-0 lead in the first 3 minutes, 18 seconds.
“That’s usually a recipe for disaster to allow them to get going,” said Kelsey.
VMI seemed to get anything they wanted, especially inside with 6-foot-9 Covington. He finished the first half with 10 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots, contributing at both ends of the deck.
“First half, I thought he was Lew Alcindor,” Kelsey joked. “Thought we did a better job in the second half on him. He was missing some of those looks around the basket that he was making in the first half.”
Still, a 13-3 VMI run in the last six minutes of the first half meant the Eagles faced a hefty halftime deficit. The talk during the break was about identity.
“We just discussed being who we are on the defensive end, which I think we did in the second half,” said Moore.
Winthrop’s offense finally got moving in a 12-1 run in the first 3 minutes, 25 seconds that tossed the game up for grabs. Johnson scored a couple of buckets during the spurt, and Jerome’s open 3-pointer forced Baucom into a timeout. VMI still led 38-36, but from there, it was either side’s game.
“I thought we lost the game in the first four minutes of the second half,” said Baucom. “They came out and kind of smacked us in the mouth.”
Winthrop still struggled offensively but held the visitors to just one field goal in the first 11 minutes of the second half. Crucial to Winthrop’s defensive lockdown was holding Keydets point guard Rodney Glasgow scoreless. The senior entered the game averaging 23.2 points per outing in conference play but was shut out in the second 20 minutes after scoring 13 points in the first half. VMI’s leading scorer, Peterson, was held to 16 points on 4 of 17 shooting on the evening.
“They’re both really, really good players,” said Kelsey. “I think our guys just accepted the one-on-one challenge against them.”
Peterson struggled from the field but did make all seven of his free throws, including both ends of a 1-and-1 with 19.8 seconds left to cut the Eagles’ lead to 56-55. Winthrop guard Brandon Vega then slipped on the ensuring inbound play and lost the ball out of bounds. Peterson was fouled with 10 seconds left and again hit both to put the Keydets up 57-56.
That left an opening for any Eagle eager to make a play, and the smallest guy on the court stepped up. Moore said there was no hesitation, no rebuttal when Johnson requested the last-shot chance.
“We’ve got a team full of guys that can make plays, and his name was called and he stepped up and made a big play.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T