BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. -- Winthrop coach Randy Peele has been preaching the importance of his team being at its best in February.
But as he said Wednesday night, after the Eagles lost a 13-point lead and then came back from five down to beat Gardner-Webb 60-55, he "didn't say it had to be on February first."
On Feb. 18, the Eagles won the one they had to have to keep alive their hopes for a fourth-place finish in the Big South Conference and to perhaps build more momentum for the conference tournament next month.
"This is what I've been talking about," Peele said. "The players have bought into what we're doing. This speaks volumes. They're still listening."
The Eagles won their second straight game for just the second time this season to move to 7-9 in the league, 8-18 overall. They still have to win their final two conference games and get some help to catch UNC Asheville (9-7), an overtime winner at High Point on Wednesday, but without what happened against the Bulldogs (11-15, 7-9), the shot would have been gone.
If there's a player to thank, it's Justin Burton, the sophomore point guard who has taken over the starting role again with Reggie Middleton out for the year. He turned in his best performance of the year, scoring 16 points, including eight straight in the second half, after the Eagles had fallen behind 45-40 with 5:30 to play.
At one point, though, Burton was close to being a goat, and not the hero.
With the Eagles up 40-36, he had the ball in the open court and pulled up in the lane for a 10-footer.
And when the Bulldogs pushed it to the other end, he was hacking Joshua Henley on a layup that led to a three-point play.
"After that," Burton said, smiling, "I had to come back, but my teammates kept me up and I had to stay aggressive."
When Grayson Flittner hit a 3-pointer with 5:30 left, the Bulldogs had reeled off a 23-5 run to take a 45-40 lead. And when Flittner lined up for another 3-pointer in transition, the Eagles might have been one bucket away from letting one slip away.
"There's no doubt," Peele said.
But the shot rattled out, Burton got the ball in the open floor, took it to the bucket, got fouled and converted the three-point play.
"It was a stop and go move," Burton said. "I didn't hesitate."
On the Eagles' next possession, he drilled a 3-pointer to tie it at 46 and the next time down the floor hit both shots of a one-and-one to get the Eagles back on top, 48-46.
"We went inside, Chris Malcolm kicked it out and I took it," Burton said of the 3-pointer. "I've got a lot of confidence in my shot."
From there, the Eagles' defense, which was outstanding most of the night, took over. They forced a turnover that led to a Byron Faison layup and on the next possession Mantoris Robinson got a finger on Aaron Linn's jumper, George Valentine grabbed the ball and hit Faison for a dunk that pushed the lead to 52-46 with 2:09 left.
"Those plays were huge," Peele said.
After falling behind by five, the Eagles scored on seven of their next eight possessions to get the lead back, but the Bulldogs had one last run, cutting the lead to 56-55 with 19 seconds left on Flittner's 3-pointer.
Burton made two free throws with 17.1 seconds left but that left time for the Bulldogs to get a shot to tie.
All that time the Winthrop coaching staff spends watching video of opponents paid off.
"Coach told us what they were going to run," Burton said.
The Bulldogs tried to get Flittner off a double screen, but Valentine read the cross court pass perfectly and picked it off, leading to Burton's layup that sealed it.
"They didn't run it exactly like we thought," Peele said, "but George got the concept and stole the ball."
Valentine added a career-high 11 points and eight rebounds, and Faison chipped in 11 off the bench as the Eagles shot a solid 42 percent.
But the numbers that mattered most, other than Burton's, were what they did on the defensive end. The 55 points were the second lowest of the year for the Bulldogs. They shot just 30 percent, including 4-of-21 on 3-pointers.
Flittner (3-of-11) and Aaron Linn (1-of-14) both came in averaging better than 15 points. They shot a combined 4-for-25 and finished with 13 points.
"That's the key stat right there," Peele said, pointing to Linn's line in the boxscore.
Winthrop has home games remaining against Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina to close out Big South play.
"We think we're going to be a tough team to beat," Burton said.