If you’re a chronic nail-biter looking to quit, Wednesday night’s Winthrop-UNC Asheville men’s basketball game was not for you.
The Eagles trailed by 11 points with 1 minute, 24 seconds left in the game, but never laid down in a crazy 107-100 overtime win
“Credit our kids for staying resolved,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “We kept telling them in the huddle, ‘It’s not over, it’s not over.’ It’s one of those games where the basketball gods were on your side.”
The win keeps Winthrop’s chances of a first-round bye in the Big South Conference tournament alive. Coastal Carolina and Gardner-Webb both won, moving into first place in the league’s South Division at 10-5, but Winthrop (16-12, 9-6) has a season sweep over the Chanticleers in its back pocket, as well as a regular season finale at home on Saturday against Presbyterian, the league’s worst team.
“It was very big, because obviously a bye is very big for our players’ bodies,” said Keon Moore, who hit the tying shot that sent the game to overtime.
Trailing 94-91 near the end of regulation with about a 5-second difference between the game and shot clock, Winthrop elected not to foul and it was confirmed as the right decision when the Bulldogs’ Andrew Rowsey, who scored 37, clanged a 3 off the side of the rim with 7 seconds left. Freshman Keon Johnson, who led the Eagles with 27 points, tracked down the loose ball, sprinted through traffic and fired ahead to Moore waiting in the right corner. Moore’s feathered shot fell through with 0.3 seconds left to force overtime while the Coliseum went nuts.
“I contested on the shot and in our defense if you contest, you’re usually the first one to get back in transition,” said Moore, who scored 22 points. “I ran to the corner and Keon Johnson, he made the play, he saw me.”
The decision not to foul Asheville late in regulation proved serendipitous.
“We wanted to get a steal in the backcourt; we didn’t want to foul,” said Kelsey. “If it didn’t work I’d look like the dumbest coach in America, but my gut told me I thought maybe they’d shoot a little bit early.”
In the extra session, a Corey Littlejohn bucket gave UNC Asheville (15-14, 9-6) a 97-96 lead with 2 minutes, 10 seconds left, but Winthrop would score the next eight points to take control of the contest. Johnson hit a foul shot and Jerome knocked in a 3 with 48 seconds left. Rowsey, who was held to two points in the last 12 minutes of the game (including overtime), coughed the ball up – Winthrop outscored Asheville 38-13 on points off turnovers – on the next play and Tevin Prescott gathered in the pitch-ahead, scored and drew the foul. He missed the free throw, but Winthrop quickly got the ball back and Andre Smith was fouled. He made both of his shots and the Eagles held on for a priceless win.
“For us, that’s about as tough a loss as you can endure,” said Asheville coach Nic McDevitt. “We just did not do the job taking care of the basketball. We had some bad turnovers, quick, empty possessions. A couple more seconds of just holding the ball and still turning it over, and they don’t have enough time to get that last one off.”
“We weren’t thinking about the whole game,” Moore said about his team’s approach when trailing by double digits late. “We were just thinking about that 4-minute war and that we needed to climb out of that hole.”
UNC Asheville’s pregame notes provided to media subtitled a section about freshman Andrew Rowsey “And a child shall lead them,” seemingly a reference to the Bible verse, Isaiah 11:6, but also a reference to Rowsey’s outstanding freshman season in which he has averaged over 19 points per contest. Wednesday night Rowsey, who Kelsey called “a video game,” scored 25 of his 37 in the first 20 minutes. He knocked in 5 of 7 from 3-point range, 3 of 4 from inside the arc and all four free throws in the first half. His sizzling form kept the Bulldogs within striking distance during a half in which they turned the ball over 10 times and ceded a 21-2 advantage to Winthrop in points off turnovers.
Winthrop’s attack, while more balanced, was equally dependent upon 3-point shooting. The Eagles hit eight, with three players – Johnson, Smith and Davenport – reaching double figures in the first half. The 53 points that the Eagles scored was the most in a half this season, while the 47 allowed was tied for most.
That the win looked improbable late in the second half is an almighty understatement. Winthrop was in deep trouble after a pair of fouls on Bulldog 3-point shooters. Sam Hughes hit all three of his foul shots and Rowsey knocked in the 3, plus the extra foul shot to give the visitors seven straight points and an 84-73 lead with 8 minutes, 22 seconds left. The air seemed to leave the Coliseum when Bulldog big man D.J. Cunningham spun out of a handoff with a teammate, drove to the rack and thundered home a slam to put the visitors up 90-80 with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left in the game.
Incredibly though, Winthrop scored nine points in the last minute, starting with Jerome’s 3 with 56 seconds left. After Cunningham turned the ball over, Johnson flung in an off-balance 3 to cut the Bulldog lead to 94-91, setting up Moore’s incredible buzzer beater to tie the game late.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T