LEXINGTON, Va. -- Some teams in the Big South Conference haven't figured out how to play against VMI's unorthodox style, but Winthrop isn't one of them.
After figuring out how to handle the ball on Wednesday, the Eagles conducted a layup drill on the Keydets and eased to an 80-70 victory, a win that pushed the Eagles squarely into the driver's seat for the regular-season title.
Now 9-3 in the conference and 18-9 overall, the Eagles got some help from Radford, which handed UNC Asheville (7-4) its fourth straight loss on Wednesday, 62-53. The regular-season race is down to Winthrop and UNCA, and the Eagles, who were three games behind a couple of weeks ago, can clinch at least a tie for the title by beating Charleston Southern next week.
The Eagles outscored the Keydets 48-31 in the paint and scored 25 points off 20 VMI turnovers. That was good enough to offset a season-high 24 turnovers that led to 26 points.
Defensively, the Eagles held VMI to 37 percent shooting, won the boards 41-32 and held the Keydets to 23 points under their nation-leading 93 points per game.
"Defensively, we were good, not great," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said.
VMI coach Duggar Baucom wouldn't totally agree with that assessment.
"They do a great job of guarding and being physical," Baucom said. "That's the best defensive team in the league, the class of the league. There's a reason they've won seven of the last nine (conference titles), and with Asheville losing, it looks like they're on the way to another one.
"They have a swagger. They're defiant. They walk in and say you have to beat the best and you have to beat us."
The Eagles got 17 points from Michael Jenkins, 15 from Chris Gaynor, 13 from Taj McCullough, 12 from Antwon Harris and 11 from Byron Faison, the first time this season they've put five in double figures. Gaynor also had eight steals, giving him the Big South career record (246).
McCullough's may have been the most surprising numbers. Just minutes before the game he was nursing a migraine and didn't start. He played 17 tough minutes.
"He was courageous," Peele said.
And toughness and discipline, more than Xs and Os, was what this game was about, particularly on the offensive end, where the Eagles passed up open shots for better shots. And that usually meant a layup, dunk or short shot in the lane.
Of Winthrop's 29 field goals, 20 were either dunks or layups, especially in the second half when they shot 60 percent (15-of-25). They took just 11 3-pointers, which tied their season-low.
"It was very hard," Jenkins said of passing up open looks. "But we had to follow the game plan. Coach had told us we were going to have to pass up some shots, but if we were patient we'd get layups or dunks.
"We dictated the way we wanted to play."
The Eagles took control of the game toward the end of the first half and led 33-28 at the break by making 12 of their last 21 shots after starting the half 2-of-7.
Up 39-37 four minutes into the second half, the Eagles went on a 10-0 run to get control. Four different Eagles scored in the run, proof they were passing the ball. VMI got no closer than seven the rest of the way.
The Eagles made almost every shot an adventure for VMI. Reggie Williams finished with 27 points but, Baucom said, "every point was tough."
"He had to work for every shot," Baucom said, "and no one other than Chavis gave him any help."
Chavis Holmes added 21 for the Keydets, but Winthrop silenced everyone else, including Willie Bell, who had been on a tear. He scored three points, didn't score from the field and had one rebound.
VMI took 36 3-pointers, but made just seven. Many of those looks came after a Winthrop turnover.
"We didn't convert on the turnovers," Baucom said, "and we got nothing in transition. That's tough."
Tough was the word Peele found for his team in the aftermath.
"This game was all about toughness," he said. "Team in the league hadn't been winning on the road, and I told my guys I didn't know if they were tough enough to come up here and get a win.
"After the game I told them they were."