Perhaps it's fitting that a Pat Kelsey-coached team would win a whisker-close basketball game thanks to a defensive stop.
Kelsey's Winthrop (20-12) squad held off a furious onslaught from UNC Asheville (17-15) Saturday afternoon for an 80-79 win in the semifinals of the Big South Conference men’s basketball tournament. The Bulldogs had the ball, down one with about 27 seconds left and looked set to win the game when freshman guard Andrew Rowsey drove to the basket. But his contested shot came back off the underside of the backboard and when the ball fell to Asheville senior Jaron Lane beneath the rim with 5.3 seconds left, his shot incredibly bobbled out.
The referees whistled a held-ball and possession went to Asheville, the South Division’s No. 2 seed, under its basket. After a brief stoppage, the Bulldogs lobbed the ball at the rim. Winthrop forward Larry Brown deflected the pass down and away, clinching the chicken-skin win as his tickled teammates rushed onto the floor.
“I was probably more surprised than anything to be that open,” Lane said afterward about his point-blank miss.
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Winthrop, the fourth seed out of the South Division, will play in its 12th Big South Conference men's basketball championship game on Sunday at noon.
“It’s just nice to continue to advance,” said Kelsey. “It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a few days. These guys get to stick around and watch the first half of the next game and then head back to the hotel and start this whole crazy next 20 hours again getting ready for one of the two opponents we’re going to play.”
Kelsey is a defensive-minded coach. It wasn’t a surprise that he was pumped about his team’s last-gasp stand, one that evoked the Winthrop juggernaut of Gregg Marshall.
“We pride ourselves on our defense and our toughness,” said Kelsey. “And it’s not us, it’s the guys that have come before us that made that jersey mean that.”
Brown epitomized that ethos as much as any Winthrop player on Saturday. He had to leave the game in the first half after hyper-extending his knee, but returned in the second half to try and wrangle Asheville’s 6-foot-10 center D.J. Cunningham. Brown finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, two steals and an assist, and no play bigger than his flick-away of the Bulldogs’ last inbounds pass.
“As coach says, we pride ourselves on toughness, and every chance I got to try and put my body on somebody, if it was two, or one person, I just tried to put a body on somebody and go up and get the rebound,” said Brown.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” said Asheville coach Nick McDevitt, whose team lost to Winthrop 107-100 in overtime nearly two weeks ago. “Although two very different teams, two teams even in their play. That’s what tournament play is about; the seeds go out the window when the tournament starts.”
A scrap between two teams that had earned 12 of the league’s last 15 NCAA tournament bids was predictably close. Rowsey, the league’s Freshman of the Year, led all scorers with 23 points, while Lane added 22 and Cunningham 21 and 11 boards. Keon Moore led the Eagles with 20, hitting 4 of his 5 tries from 3-point range, while Joab Jerome and Keon Johnson added 16 each.
All of Winthrop’s starters except for Moore battled foul trouble. Brown, James Bourne, Tevin Prescott and even Jerome all took turns scrapping with Cunningham. Brown missed substantial chunks of the game, and still picked up four fouls trying to root Cunningham out of position, often a losing proposition.
“He’s a strong kid, great player and I would say definitely one of the toughest battles I’ve had,” said Brown.
After a brief spurt involving buckets from Moore and Bourne, Winthrop pushed ahead 70-64 with around 6 minutes to play. Cunningham then hammered Bourne inside and in the heat of the moment, shoved the Winthrop junior over and was charged with a technical foul. The Eagles had a plush chance to open up a big lead, but only hit two of the ensuing free throws, before turning the ball over.
With a gunner like Rowsey on the floor, an eight-point lead wasn’t sufficient. The 5-foot-10 guard buried two triples in quick succession, the second in transition forcing a Winthrop timeout with the Eagle lead cut to 74-73.
The Bulldogs kept coming. Lane scored inside to give Asheville a 77-75 lead with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left in the game. But Johnson, the smallest guy on the court, burst past his defender and dropped in a teardrop of a floater to put the Eagles back in front 78-77 with 1 minute, 48 seconds remaining. Johnson then gave Winthrop a three-point cushion with about a minute left when he flicked a circus shot up and in, plus the foul, to make it 80-77.
That proved enough for the Eagles. Cunningham hit a pair of free throws after Brown fouled him chasing Johnson’s missed free throw following the three-point play. But neither team scored in the last minute and Winthrop’s lead held up, giving the Eagles’ their first 20-win season since 2007-08, and a shot at a first NCAA appearance since the 2009-10 campaign.
“It means a lot,” said Kelsey. “There is an expectation of excellence. We practice every day under a bunch of NCAA tournament banners that, like, stare at you. We understand it’s our responsibility to try and uphold that and hang more banners.”