Less than four seconds remained in Winthrop’s Big South tournament quarterfinal game against Gardner-Webb Thursday and the Eagles were ahead by just three points. The immediate mission was as difficult as it was simple: pass the ball inbounds to a Winthrop teammate.
Eagles coach Pat Kelsey entrusted that task to freshman Kyle Zunic.
“Kyle’s a savvy passer, he’s got a high basketball IQ,” Kelsey said after the game.
“I wasn’t thinking too much, just get the ball into either Bjorn (Broman) or Anders (Broman),” Zunic said after the game. “Coach trusted me to have that ball in my hands on that last play. I was lucky enough to have a great coach that trusted me.”
Zunic got the ball to Bjorn Broman and he swished both free throws to help No. 3 Winthrop push away No. 6 Gardner-Webb’s upset bid 72-68 in the first round of the conference tournament Thursday. Besides the cool-headed inbounds pass, Zunic scored 13 points off the bench to lift the Eagles into Friday’s 6 p.m. semifinal against No. 2 Radford.
“I was pretty nervous coming in, first tournament game,” said Zunic. “I was just thinking no matter what you did during the season, now is a new time.”
Like Eagles star Xavier Cooks, Zunic is from the coastal city of Wollongong, Australia. And like Cooks, Zunic lived basketball at the Australian Institute of Sport, a government-backed sports school, competing against some of the best youth players in the world.
Zunic said his father, Zoran, is the second youngest player to ever appear in an Australian pro basketball game. Zoran was 15 years old when he debuted, and were it not for a blown-out knee, he would have represented his country in the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, South Korea.
Zoran and Tania, Zunic’s mom, were in the stands Thursday. Zunic’s older brother, Jordan, is a professional golfer.
All of that athletic know-how is one of the reasons that Zunic was the inbounder when Winthrop needed a perfectly simple pass.
“Kyle’s played at the highest level of basketball there is,” said Kelsey.
It was a big moment for the Aussie, who has had a stop-start rookie season in Rock Hill. He’s rolled both of his ankles this season -- remember all the one-on-one they play in the U.S.? -- and missed four games in January and February when the right side of his stomach began to hurt.
“Before the Campbell game I felt a bit sick. I went to practice and over time it just kept getting sorer, really sore,” Zunic said. “I said to doctor Jeff Lahr, ‘it doesn’t feel right,’ and he said ‘go home, if it gets worse message me.’ I messaged him.”
Zunic’s appendix had burst. He was in the hospital at midnight and under the knife at 9 a.m. the next morning. The operation took about two hours, and he was at Winthrop Coliseum later that afternoon watching the Eagles play Campbell.”
“Mom was pretty scared because she didn’t know what was going on,” said Zunic.
An obvious competitor, Zunic paced the sidelines at practices until he was cleared to return. It took Zunic a while to get back in the flow, especially shooting the ball. Kelsey said throwing Zunic “into the lion’s den” at High Point Feb. 10 probably hurt the freshman’s shooting confidence. Thursday was his first game with more than 10 points since Jan. 24, a few days before his appendix ruptured. He hit 3-of-6 shots from beyond the arc.
“He’s been coming along,” Kelsey said. “You can see him coming around with his confidence, gave us 13 points and made some big shots.”
Winthrop also got lifts from Anders Broman, who hit four second half 3-pointers and finished with 15 points, and Adam Pickett, who fouled out but gave the Eagles another 15. Cooks limped into double figures after a 5-of-16 shooting performance, but Zunic’s countryman contributed four blocked shots and produced three big plays in a row for the Eagles down the stretch, scoring twice and getting fouled on the third where he made 1-of-2 free throws.
“That’s the best thing about Xav, his happy-go-lucky disposition. He’s from a surfer town in Australia and he’s out there walking around bare feet with no shirt on. He’s a great teammate, he’s happy as heck we won,” said Kelsey.