CONWAY — A little over a month ago, the Winthrop basketball team learned a valuable lesson.
The Eagles led at High Point by as many as 12 points, only to see the Panthers win the game when Adam Weary’s shot gave the Panthers their first and only necessary lead with nine seconds to play. Winthrop had been up for 39 minutes and 51 seconds, but Pat Kelsey’s team didn’t put High Point away for good.
On Wednesday, Winthrop earned another shot at the Big South Conference regular-season champions by doing exactly what it couldn’t against the Panthers on Feb. 1.
“It was bittersweet losing that game to High Point,” junior Keon Moore said after the Eagles defeated Liberty 77-65 in the first round of the Big South tournament. “Fortunately, we get to play them again. It did teach us that we need learn how to close games. We were fortunate enough to come out (against Liberty) and close this one.”
More specifically, Winthrop owned the Flames at the end of each half.
The Eagles took the lead for good with 7 minutes, 18 seconds to go on guard Keon Johnson’s 3-pointer, extended it moments later when he connected on another, and continued to build from there.
Johnson finished with a team-high 15 points. Teammates Andre Smith, Joab Jerome and Moore each added 14. Those four were aided all the way around by the Eagles’ Big South tournament record 21-of-21 performance from the free-throw line. Jerome led the way by connecting on all nine of his free throw attempts.
“It kills the other team,” he said. “It’s kind of like offensive rebounds. When we make them, it hurts them a lot.”
The late-game showing, however, wasn’t possible until Winthrop staged an earlier comeback after a poor start.
Liberty jumped out to a 17-5 lead six minutes into the game and looked prepared to record an upset to open the tournament. Winthrop, which was 1-of-6 from the floor and had three early turnovers in the first six minutes, flipped the switch on both ends of the court.
In the final 14 minutes of the opening half, the Eagles converted two-thirds of their shots and outscored the Flames 30-12.
“Coming out of the gate when they built their lead, things were coming too comfortably,” Kelsey said. “Credit them. They were executing. They were making shots. But we pride ourselves … in our defense. It’s a pillar, a foundation of our program. They were scoring too easy.”
That wasn’t the case near the end of either half. Combined, the Flames were just six-of-17 in the closing five minutes in the first and second half.
It sets up the rematch between Winthrop and High Point for noon Friday in the tournament quarterfinals. The Eagles will need to find a way to stop conference player of the year John Brown – who had 26 points in the first meeting – not to mention a way to make plays when they matter most.
“It was kind of a heavyweight fight. John Brown was terrific in that game,” Kelsey said. “We tell these guys all the time ‘The season is a lifetime.’ There’s ups, there’s downs, there’s good, there’s bad. … The kid at the end of the High Point game made a big-time shot. You tip your cap to him and you get working on the next game.
“Every game is a learning experience. We learned a lot from that.”