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Henry, Smith making strides for Winthrop Eagles

On the surface, it didn't look like much.

But it might be the kind of play that means a lot to Winthrop basketball over the next month.

Midway through the getaway second half of Thursday's win at Radford, freshman guard Derrick Henry grabbed a rebound in the paint, coming down off balance. There was a moment when it looked as if he was going straight back up with the ball, which as a scorer, he had every right to do.

Instead, Henry kicked the ball out to a teammate, to burn a few more seconds while the Eagles were holding onto a lead.

Considering the difficulty they've had holding leads, it might have been the smartest play he's made all season, and it came at a time when his coach needed to see it the most.

"Derrick really took a step tonight," coach Randy Peele said, seeing the small bits of progress the freshman playmaker has made.

It was hard for him or fellow freshman guard Andre Smith to show it lately, banished as they were to the bench the past two games, never even getting out of warm-ups. Henry had started nine games this season and Smith six, so not playing at all was a shock.

But Henry admitted his removal from the lineup was a dose of reality - that he couldn't go on playing like a freshman if he wanted to play for the Eagles over the final month.

For a guy who came to Winthrop with credentials as a big-time scorer (and showed hints of it with 17 at Georgia), the idea of not playing at all was odd to him.

"It was strange, not even playing the past few," Henry said. "I just tried to come back to practice and work. I know I had to go hard, extra hard, in practice and get some things right if I wanted to play again."

There are things you're not going to get with Henry. He's still waiting on his first college assist. But more importantly, his assist-turnover ratio stayed at 0-11 upon Thursday's prodigal minutes, and taking better care of the ball is the thing Peele's harped on the longest with him.

After Thursday's 77-63 win, the defense-first Peele hailed Henry's "offensive sureness."

The eight points off the bench were practically a bonus, as getting a trustworthy breather for starter Andre Jones is the bigger part of his job description over the next month.

Keeping that in focus is the key.

"It messes with your mind a little bit when you don't get a chance to play," Henry said. "I know I have to be mentally strong. So when I was sitting, I knew I couldn't have a bad attitude, or bring negative vibes to the team in February.

"It was a little hard, but I just had to stay positive and work through it."

Smith was in the same boat, and still needs a little work. He came to Winthrop with the ability to hit the 3-pointer from NBA range. Sometimes, however, he's a little eager to show it. He nailed one early Thursday (when Peele put four freshmen on the floor together at the first timeout), but he pulled the trigger too soon later, the kind of play that sticks with a coach who treasures every possession.

"I need him to be able to run the team," Peele said. "Those were good minutes for Andre, and he's got to play smart if he wants to play good minutes with the game on the line."

Like Henry, Smith admitted that getting benched was tough to swallow, but he knows that for Winthrop to be able to play well down the stretch, they need Jones and Reggie Middleton to be able to not play for a minute more than they necessarily need him playing.

"I'm all right with it," Smith said. "Coach met with me, we watched some tapes and talked about what's wrong, and I'm working on fixing it. I just have to work to get to the point where I'm ready when coach calls on No. 3."