High Point made the definitive plays in the final few minutes of Thursday night’s first place matchup with Winthrop, and the Panthers left Rock Hill with a 74-71 victory and sole possession of the Big South Conference lead.
Winthrop led 38-27 at the break, but the visiting Panthers put up 47 in the second half, including an early 14-2 run that busted the Eagles’ lip en route to a second straight loss.
“I cautioned the team that we needed to play 20 more minutes,” said Winthrop coach Kevin Cook. “And I thought they won the game in the first 6 minutes of the second half.”
Liberty, which beat Winthrop last weekend, has won 14 of the last 16 Big South Conference titles. The Eagles finished second last year and third the season before, but entered Thursday night with the hope of taking a giant step toward the program’s first championship. It may still happen Saturday at home against Campbell, but it will be much harder.
“In life and basketball, you’ve got to be strong enough to handle setbacks,” said Cook. “I believe in our players; I believe we’ll bounce back.”
The disappointing loss overshadowed the night that Winthrop senior Dequesha McClanahan scored 22 points and moved past Liberty’s Elena Kisseleva as Big South women’s basketball’s all-time leading scorer. The fateful bucket came on an innocuous inbounds play where McClanahan squirmed loose as she has so often in her career and quickly pulled up for a baseline jumper that fell through with 3 minutes, 36 seconds left in the first half. The game wasn’t stopped, but those in attendance were well aware of the accomplishment.
“I can’t say enough about how good that kid is,” said High Point coach DeUnna Hendrix. “She’s a great face for the Big South. It’s very hard to coach against and there is no plan that says ‘stop Dequesha McClanahan.’ ”
Winthrop led by as many as 15 points in the first half, before taking a 38-27 advantage into the intermission. High Point ripped open the second half with a 14-2 run that gave the Panthers their first lead of the game with 15 minutes, 53 seconds to play. Teddy Vincent bombed in a 3-pointer seconds into the second period before the Eagles turned the ball over twice and Ashante Richard converted a wide open layup inside the first 42 seconds. That was enough for Cook to call timeout, but the stoppage didn’t abate the Panthers’ oncoming rush. Vincent rainbowed in another to cap the run that put the visitors ahead 41-40.
The two sides ping-ponged the lead back and forth until the midway point when Lindsay Puckett hit three 3-pointers in a row, the second fortuitously off the glass, to put the Panthers in front 54-49 with 8 minutes, 47 seconds remaining.
That abruptly sparked a 10-0 run by the Eagles, with McClanahan doing the prodding. Tiffany Charles’ free throws gave the hosts a 59-54 lead with 6 minutes, 1 second left and it looked for the second or third time in the game that Winthrop might be pulling away.
Two 3-pointers by High Point’s leading scorer Kaylah Keys cut into the deficit, before the freshman, who leads the league in scoring, stole into the passing lane and filched Charles’ pass, before finishing at the other end while drawing a foul. The free throw was no good, but Stacia Robertson converted the putback to give High Point a 70-69 lead with 1 minute, 35 seconds to go.
Latrice Phelps then scored in the lane to put High Point up by three, but McClanahan whizzed in the other direction to score to make it 72-71. Winthrop then made a perfect play on the ensuing defensive possession, forcing a tie. But when McClanahan tried to draw a whistle from the referees with a fierce drive at the other end, she was instead called for traveling. Phelps broke the Winthrop press seconds later to seal the deal with a layup, though the Eagles still had time for a desperation 3 that fell well short.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T