The Christmas holidays will be a little more cheerful for Winthrop, after the Eagles snapped a two-game losing streak with Friday night's knuckle-grinding, 62-59 win over Old Dominion.
Facing the prospect of taking a four-day break with a sub-.500 record to think about, the Eagles (6-5) built a big lead with defense then held on in the second half to beat the Monarchs (6-6) for the second straight year.
It was the thought of losing three in a row, something that had never happened to seniors Chris Gaynor, Taj McCullough, Michael Jenkins and Antwon Harris, that provided a good bit of the motivation.
Gaynor said assistant coach Paul Molinari pounded them with that statistic since Tuesday night's loss at Mount St. Mary's.
"We needed this one, I'm telling you," said Gaynor, who had 11 points, four assists and five steals. "Coach Molinari kept talking about that, and I thought about that today.
"We'd never gone three in a row."
McCullough finished with 14 points and five rebounds, Harris added 13 points and Jenkins 12 as the seniors came through at a crucial point in the season.
"That's how I like to coach," Winthrop's Randy Peele said. "I'm a balance guy. That's the kind of team I'm comfortable with."
And he's also a coach who's really comfortable when his team defends, and the Eagles did that, especially in the first half when they built a 10-point lead and enough cushion to withstand a couple of ODU runs late in the game.
"One of the things I learned the last couple of days," Peele said, "is that we've got to get back to the mindset we had in October defensively. We've got to get back to defense. We defended in practice the last couple of days and it showed tonight."
The Eagles held the Monarchs to 39 percent shooting and forced 20 turnovers that resulted in 14 points. ODU missed 16 of 21 3-pointers. And 6-10 Gerald Lee, who has pro potential written all over him, was held to 10 points by some good help defense. He got just eight shots and six of his points came in the first 12 minutes.
"The turnovers were frustrating," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "They played very hard and got the double-digit lead, and that was enough. They're going to feel a lot better about the holidays than we are."
The Eagles led 31-21 at the half and led 40-26 with 17:09 to play. But eight straight points by Brandon Johnson, coupled with a zone defense the Eagles couldn't solve, trimmed the lead to 40-34.
ODU had a chance to cut it to four, but Gaynor came up with a steal and went coast to coast for a layup, Winthrop's first field goal in more than five minutes.
When Mantoris Robinson drove from the top of the key for a dunk, the Eagles led 51-36 with 7:16 to go and seemed to have things in hand.
But the Monarchs had other ideas, and with guards Darius James and Johnson coming to life, they came back. A 10-2 run, with James getting half those points, trimmed the lead to 55-46, and when Johnson made two free throws with 3:24 to play, Winthrop's lead was down to 56-51.
"We played guys a lot of minutes," Peele said, "and in the second half, I think we were tired. We were chasing guys for 40 minutes and got beat off the dribble."
ODU missed a chance to cut the lead to three when Andy Buechert blocked Johnson's shot off the baseline. At the other end, the Eagles scored off an inbounds play, when Gaynor found Jenkins for a 3-pointer at the top of the key.
But James and Jonathan Adams hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and with 1:16 left, Winthrop's lead was 59-57.
"I was getting a little nervous," McCullough said.
With the shot clocking winding down and the play seemingly ready to break down, Gaynor got into the lane, drew the defense and threw a pass for the rim that McCullough grabbed and slammed with 49 seconds to go.
"I thought they were dead in the water," Taylor said, "but we allowed penetration and they made an instinctive play."
Gaynor said it was something McCullough had been looking for all year.
"All year he's been begging me to throw to the rim against the zone," Gaynor said. "He's a highlight reel when he catches it."
The Monarchs had one more chance when Gaynor fouled James on a 3-point shot with 20.8 seconds left. James hit two free throws to cut the lead to 61-59, but Buechert made the game's single biggest shot when he hit the front end of a one-and-one with 9.4 seconds to play.
Johnson's 3-pointer to tie missed.
"The guy who made the biggest impact on the game," Peele said, "was Buechert. He's a big body inside, and that free throw was huge. And he had five rebounds."
Peele said they might be more games like this one ahead.
"We're not going to have many blowouts," he said. "We're not going to beat people 75-55. It's going to be like 60-52, an eight-point game. This team is going to have to grind it out."
The Eagles are off until playing unbeaten No. 22 Miami in the Orange Bowl Classic a week from today.
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