Winthrop's Eagles evened their Big South Conference record at 1-1 Wednesday, gnawing their way past Liberty 55-48 in a game coach Randy Peele says will be the rule, not the exception, this season.
In other words, if you're looking for beautiful basketball, you may not see it with the Eagles. But, Peele says, if the effort's there, it will be pretty enough.
"That game is so typical of how we play," Peele said, after the Eagles shot 38 percent and missed 10-of-17 free throws. "We grind out games.
"This is how we have to win. This is who we are. We're going to win 55-48, 63-59. I've told my staff, these games are going to be close."
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Winthrop improved to 10-5 and avoided the program's first 0-2 start in the Big South since 1997-98.
The game continued a season-long pattern.
It was the Eagles' 13th game decided by 10 or fewer points. Eight of the past nine have been decided by seven or fewer, and the other was the a 44-point blowout of Limestone. Half of Winthrop's wins have been by seven or fewer points.
They won this one by beating the Flames 37-29 on the boards, including a 15-1 edge in offensive rebounds. They got 21 more shots and only committed eight turnovers to 15 for the Flames, who slipped to 8-9, 0-2 under first-year coach Ritchie McKay.
Peele said he didn't think "anybody was special" for his team, with the exception of 6-foot-5 sophomore Mantoris Robinson who played a career-high 31 minutes, scored nine points and added seven rebounds, three assists and three steals.
"It was his best game since he's been here," Peele said. "That's the most aggressive he's been."
Robinson was instrumental in attacking the Flames' mixture of defenses that include a triangle and two on guards Michael Jenkins and Chris Gaynor, at least five zone variations and some man-to-man.
McKay said he went to the junk defense out of respect for Gaynor, Jenkins and McCullough. He wanted to make someone else beat him. Robinson may not have done it alone, but he certainly was a key element.
"Coach has been after me to be more aggressive," said the soft-spoken Robinson, who got up a career-high 13 shots. He only made four but his aggression set a tone inside.
"That's the type player we see in practice," Gaynor said, talking like Robinson's press agent. "We challenge him in practice. Keeps doing it, he'll be good."
But despite Robinson's effort and some pretty good defense by the Eagles, who never could push the lead into double digits, the clock ticked inside the last minute before Winthrop finished this one off.
They led just 28-24 at the half, and that came after Jenkins hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Neither team was doing much damage on the offensive end and the defenses were physical and a little foul-prone.
Even in the second half, the Eagles' offense wasn't much more productive. They made just 10-of-30 shots in the final 20 minutes, but the last three put it away.
Jenkins' 3-pointer with 1:18 to play put the Eagles up 51-43 and they thought they could take a deep breath, but TeeJay Bannister hit a 3-pointer and two free throws after a Winthrop turnover to cut the lead to 51-48 with 48.2 seconds to go.
The Eagles finally put it away on back-to-back dunks by Taj McCullough, one on a drive and dish by Gaynor and the other on a breakaway pass from Gaynor after a Liberty miss.
It was another struggling night for McCullough, who played just two minutes in the first half because of fouls and only 18 for the game. He had 10 points and five rebounds.
"(The dunks) wouldn't have come unless Chris gave me the ball," McCullough said.
Jenkins finished with 12 points and six rebounds, and the bench, for the second straight game, came through, producing 13 points and eight rebounds.
The Eagles did a good job of containing 6-8 center Alex McLean, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. The defense sagged on McLean and shut down the passing angles in the lane. Anthony Smith offset some of that with 17 points. Smith made 6-of-8 shots and McLean 4-of-6, but the rest of the team was 6-of-22.
"We had trouble getting it inside," McKay said, "and we became stagnant on offense. But good teams expose your weaknesses and that's what Winthrop did."
The game was no work of art, but Peele and the players certainly saw the beauty in a 1-1 record in the league.
"People are going to give us their best shot every time," McCullough said.
"It was a huge win," Peele said. "Every time we lose it's the worst feeling in the world. I'm going to enjoy this one."