A week ago, Winthrop was knocking off an ACC opponent in Clemson.
But Monday night a poor-shooting East Tennessee (3-1) team escaped Winthrop Coliseum with a 69-64 win over the equally tepid-shooting Eagles (2-2).
“In the waning moments, in the last crucial minutes, we’re right there in the game, in fact with the lead, so it’s obviously disappointing especially at home, not to find a way to pull it out,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
With the score tied at 61, East Tennessee guard Jalen Riley canned a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc’s left elbow while falling down to put the Bucs in front 64-61 with 49 seconds left.
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“It wasn’t a last resort, I just couldn’t find an opening early on in the possession,” said Riley, who finished with 10 points despite 2-of-9 shooting.
That late bucket pickled the Eagles’ chances of winning, though they still had a sliver of hope when Keon Johnson’s 3 was off target to the left, but Keon Moore, who led all scorers with 24, flew in and followed up the miss with a bucket, plus the foul. Moore’s foul shot with 15.7 seconds left made it a one-point game, 65-64.
Riley was fouled by the Winthrop full-court press and coolly hit both freebies to make it a three-point game. Johnson then missed another desperate 3 and the Bucs knew then they’d win a game in which they didn’t play their best.
“We shot 31 percent from the field and still squeaked out a win,” said East Tennessee coach Murray Bartow.
“This game, it brought out toughness for sure,” said Riley. “Both teams shot pretty bad, we shot it really bad. It just came down to grinding out possessions defensively.”
The loss spoiled Moore’s first career double-double, as he added 10 rebounds to his 24 points. Senior Andre Smith chipped in 12 points and eight assists, and Josh Davenport six points and seven assists off the bench.
After a six-minute stretch without a field goal late in the half, perhaps Winthrop was fortunate to only be down 32-28 at the break. Lester Wilson scored 14 of his 20 points in the first half, pouring in eight straight at one stretch to give East Tennessee an 18-12 lead midway through the first.
Winthrop’s Aussie freshman Xavier Cooks made his first start and back-to-back buckets from the mop-topped rookie cut the Bucs’ lead to 21-19. The visitors gradually pulled away in the first half, Alex Bates finishing after a nice seal and Wilson hitting a 3 to make it 30-25 with 2 minutes, 47 seconds left in the half. Devin Harris’ two free throws made it 32-25 and gave the Bucs their biggest advantage of the first 20 minutes.
East Tennessee State’s constantly switching defenses kept the Eagles off balance. The Bucs would shift seamlessly from a three-quarters-court press to a 2-3 zone.
“They’re long and active in their zone; they really dare you to try and drive the ball,” said Kelsey. “We saw one or two possessions of man-to-man the entire game.”
Still, four free throws during a six-minute span kept the Eagles within striking distance, and Moore’s 3 from the left elbow with 1 minute, 16 seconds left in the first half ensured the barren stretch didn’t severely harm the hosts.
Winthrop erased a four-point intermission deficit with a 15-3 run to start the second half. That burst was greased by East Tennessee’s nine-minute-plus field goal drought that spanned the two halves and left them trailing 43-36 after Moore hit his second three in the run.
In a streaky affair, it was East Tennessee that cobbled together the last spurt.
The Bucs entered the game with 46 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc, and averaging just 14.8 seconds per possession - 17th fastest in the country - and both of those qualities were on display during the 15-5 run that fully demonstrated their offensive lethality. Rashawn Rembert, who scored 31 points in East Tennessee’s 98-87 win over UNC Asheville on Saturday, hit three triples in about two minutes, and A.J. Merriweather’s step-back 3 put the Bucs up 54-50 with 7 minutes, 33 seconds left.
Nine straight Winthrop points put the Eagles back in the lead at 59-54, but East Tennessee dug deep one last time to set up Riley’s decisive input in the last minute.
“It’s a long season,” said Kelsey. “We’ve got to shut the book on this one tomorrow when we get up and move on.”