Reflection was omnipresent Saturday during the Winthrop men’s basketball game.
Seniors Joab Jerome, Christian Farmer and Donavon Carter were honored before the opening tip for their careers in the Eagles’ colors. And the family of Chase Kowalski, one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in late 2012, attended the game as guests of Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, whom they contacted and befriended after he spoke out on the matter during a press conference. The Newtown, Conn., family was recognized before the game with a lengthy standing ovation, and Eagles players wore the first names of the victims on the backs of their jerseys.
Oh, and the Eagles beat Presbyterian College 82-60 in the regular-season finale.
“Not only was it an emotional night, being Senior Night, but our dear friends from Connecticut were down, and that made for a really, really special day,” said Kelsey. “I’m happy to get the win.”
The game’s impact was somewhat lessened before even the first tip when Coastal Carolina held off Charleston Southern’s late comeback to beat the Bucs, clinching the No. 1 seed from the South Division and denying Winthrop (17-12, 10-6 in Big South) a first-round bye. Still, Winthrop was able to run away from the Blue Hose (6-25, 2-14) in the second half behind a flurry of 3-pointers, 11 total. The win was Winthrop’s 10th in Big South play, the first time the Eagles reached that threshold since 2009-10, and set up a Big South Conference tournament first-round matchup with Liberty at noon Wednesday.
“It’s what makes college basketball special, is this week,” said Kelsey. “You go through the dog days of the conference season, and all of the sudden the weather is changing, the flowers are blooming, and that CBS music starts to come on. That gets college basketball fans excited.”
On Saturday, Farmer got the fans excited. He got his third start of the season and took advantage, scoring 11 first-half points en route to a season-high 18. He was a big part of Winthrop’s 11 of 20 3-point shooting effort, the Eagles’ 10th game this season with double-digit 3-pointers. It was a fuzzy and warm feeling for Farmer to be a significant contributor during a season in which he’s only averaged 10.5 minutes per game.
“It was kind of bittersweet, knowing this is my last home game in college basketball ever, I just wanted to go out and play hard,” the Charlotte native said. “Just glad we got the team win for me and Joey.”
Kelsey called Farmer the “ultimate example of sticking to it.”
“Chris will be the first to tell you he’s probably not all that excited with the number of minutes he’s played, and it’s easy when you’re not playing the role you want to play to hang your head,” said Kelsey. “Tonight on Senior Night, because he continued to work hard, he comes out and lights it up.”
Jerome also played well in his final game at Winthrop Coliseum, scoring 17 points. He was tasked with guarding Presbyterian sharpshooter Jordan Downing, who justified Kelsey calling him a “video-game player” earlier in the week by scoring 34 points. It was surreal for Jerome, who wore the name “Chase” on the back of his jersey in honor of the Kowalskis’ little boy, to internalize the experience afterward.
“It was tough,” said Jerome, “knowing that I’ll never be able to put this jersey on again and play in front of our fans. It was kind of shocking.”
The home team swung the game late in the first half. With the contest tied at 29 and about four minutes left, Keon Johnson knocked in three free throws, and Farmer buried a deep 3-pointer after a dish upcourt by Andre Smith, who finished with six assists Saturday. Farmer’s triple was part of a 13-5 Winthrop surge heading into the locker room, and the Eagles picked up the same tune in the second 20 minutes. Jerome cruised past his defender for a nice bucket before kicking out to Farmer, who stepped into another 3, one of his four in the contest, to make it 49-38 with 17 minutes left.
“Earlier in the year, I was struggling shooting. I just had to get in the gym a whole lot more,” said Farmer. “When my shot wasn’t falling, I was easily taken out of the game, so I just had to work harder.”
The Eagles continued to put distance between themselves and the visitors with a series of three straight 3-pointers, two by Keon Moore, who finished with 11 points, and one by Jerome finally buried the Blue Hose.
There were few gaffes in a sharp second half for the Eagles. Late in the second half, Farmer buried a 3-pointer even after he’d been whistled for stepping out of bounds, then stole the ball on the next play and fired a pass to a wide-open Carter, who fumbled the ball out of bounds, and with it, his chance at a basket on Senior Night. The two seniors shared a wry smile as they ran back up the floor, Carter shaking his head. Just one more thing to reflect upon.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T