As the Winthrop Eagles trudged back to their locker room after Friday night’s Big South tournament semifinal loss to Radford, they pulled jerseys over their faces to hide the shock, sadness and a rush of other emotions. None were elation or relief.
Radford’s 61-52 win was a testament to perseverance. The Highlanders’ offense was as attractive as a belly-flop contest for most of Friday night’s game, but they handcuffed Winthrop’s high octane scoring attack for 40 minutes to advance to a first conference final since 2009.
“They made more plays down the stretch,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
“We knew we were gonna have to drive a stake in their heart. They’re the defending champions and they know how to win in these situations,” said Radford (21-12) coach Mike Jones.
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Winthrop (19-12) persevered as well, and was within striking distance late despite its struggles. The Eagles trailed 54-52 with 76 seconds left and Radford inbounding under its basket with just eight seconds on the shot clock. But Ed Polite Jr. finished high off the glass and Winthrop didn’t score the rest of the game, a shocking ending for the statistically-best offensive team in the conference, whose season ended before the tournament final for the first time since 2013.
“There’s seven other teams going home like this, 30 seniors coming up here crying,” said Winthrop senior Xavier Cooks. “I was stunned. I thought we had the best team this year.”
A new era?
Is it the end of an era for Winthrop? In a way, yes. Cooks, the Big South player of the year who struggled for a fourth straight game, fouling out late, has played his last game in the garnet and gold. He and Keon Johnson, who finished his career last season as the school’s all-time leading scorer, were the two stars most closely linked to all of the Eagles’ success the last four years. They rewrote the school’s record books and also helped the Eagles end their NCAA Tournament drought last season.
But both are gone and there will be no clear star next season, no obvious first team All-Conference player. And who knows what will happen with coach Pat Kelsey, who very nearly took a UMass job last season and will undoubtedly be heavily coveted again.
The Eagles also lose senior marksman Anders Broman and four players at the end of the bench -- Matt Erps, Kellen Blake, Freddy Poole and Mitch Hill, who served unselfishly as scout team players the last four years (one for Erps). It’s a thankless job that helped make Winthrop better in practice. There are intricate NCAA rules surrounding the acquisition of walk-on players. It won’t be easy for the Eagles coaching staff to replace Erps, Blake, Poole and Hill, and their collected knowledge of Winthrop’s way of playing.
“You mention the graduation of Xavier and Anders,” said Kelsey, “but it’s tough to say goodbye to those guys because they were part of building something really special and really successful the last several years.
‘Golden State Warriors’ stymied
Radford’s interior size and its 1-3-3 press drained the Eagles. The press required more effort than usual to get the ball into the front court, and the combined girth of Randy Phillips and Devonte Holland and the length of Polite Jr. made every rebound a lung-busting scrum.
“Shout out to our big fellows,” said Radford guard Travis Fields Jr., who canned a big 3 that gave Radford a 54-50 lead late. “That was their main goal, just boxing out hard.”
Presbyterian coach Dustin Kerns called the Eagles “the Golden State Warriors of our league,” earlier this season but they met their match Friday.
“We’re not a glamorous team,” Jones said.
Winthrop played stifling defense too, holding the Highlanders to 34 percent shooting, including no field goals for the first eight minutes of the second half. But the Eagles never took advantage of that barren stretch and Radford felt like it had escaped with its chances still intact.
That realization with a quarter of the game left “felt pretty good,” said Highlanders freshman Carlik Jones.
“It felt great!” Radford’s coach interjected.
The Highlanders enjoyed an immense advantage at the foul line -- shooting 26 free throws to Winthrop’s eight -- and forced 15 Eagle turnovers, while coughing the ball up just five times. That led to a 17-1 advantage in points off turnovers. Fittingly, the Eagles turned the ball over twice in the desperate last 20 seconds, leaving them in an unfamiliar position: not involved in Sunday’s championship game.