The college basketball season runs for five long months, and that may be a good thing for Winthrop's Eagles, who showed in Saturday night's 68-61 season-opening win over Queens University of Charlotte they have plenty to work on.
Defense. Rebounding. Free throw shooting. Finding someone to take some of the ball handling pressure off Chris Gaynor.
All those things will get plenty of looks starting with the next practice.
"We played like a team with seven new guys," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said. "The biggest thing was we fouled too much and it came because we couldn't guard the ball. They were trying to spread us out and drive us and we had a hard time defending the ball.
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"Offensively, we had guys who were tryiing to make plays too soon out of our sets. We just played like a team with a lot of new faces."
The Eagles, trying to replace three starters from last year and work at least four new players into the lineup, scored one field goal in the final 9:12 but somehow managed to hang on against the NCAA Division II Royals, who came after the Eagles aggressively and with purpose and almost ruined the coaching debut of Peele.
Gaynor, who Peele hopes to count on for more scoring this year, led the way with 17 points, while playing 36 grueling minutes. Michael Jenkins added 13 and Taj McCullough 10 and a team-high eight rebounds as the Eagles won their 24th straight game at home in front of a loud crowd of 3,311.
Peele said afterward he had to find someone to get Gaynor some help handling the ball.
"I'm not happy with the fact I had to play Chris that many minutes," Peele said, "but it was a possession conscious game, and I felt like I had to play him that many minutes for us to win the game."
For the Royals, the game was listed as an exhibition, but they didn't play that way -- or maybe they did. They played loose and hard. And they got to the glass enough to get 17 offensive rebounds and shoot 32 free throws.
But the Eagles were good enough defensively that they at least kept the Royals from getting to the bucket in the final nine minutes with any regularity.
The Eagles opened up a 45-30 lead with 13:32 to play and appeared ready to ease to a victory, and they still led 51-41 with 9:12 left when Taj McCullough slipped inside for a bucket.
But from that point to the final buzzer, the Eagles had to hang on and hit free throws, because nothing came easy and nothing was going in the basket.
The Royals, smaller than the Eagles but quicker on the perimeter, came in with a game plan to attack and to appy all the pressure they could muster on Gaynor. They tried to take the ball out of his hands and make others beat them, a strategy that almost worked.
Reggie Hopkins, who finished with 18 points, Akeem Miskdeen and Andre Lockhart took turns trying to make Gaynor's night miserable, and when Hopkins nailed a 3-pointer from the wing, the Royals had cut the deficit to 53-50 with 2:30 left.
And it was still a 57-53 game with 1:09 to go, when John Thompson hit two free throws.
The Eagles had the ball out of bounds against the Royals' full court pressure and came up with the game's biggest play. Mantoris Robinson sprinted toward the backcourt, then changed directions and headed for the Eagles' basket. Jenkins hit him with a length of the floor pass and Mantoris slammed it home, the Eagles' only field goal in the final 9:12.
"That was a big play," Peele said. "It was a play we put in this week."
The final boxscore will show the Eagles going just 24 of 39 from the free throw line, but in those final nine minutes, they hit 15 of 19. Jenkins hit all six of his free throws in the final minute, and Antwon Harris swished two clutch shots with 26.9 seconds left to push the lead to 64-58.
Robinson fouled out with 29 seconds left, but he was the key defender in limiting Darnell Evans, who had 25 points in the Royals' first exhibition, to 10. He didn't get his first field goal until the 16:45 mark of the second half and he made just 3-of-12 shots.
The Eagles held the Royals to 34 percent shooting and forced 21 turnovers.
But Winthrop also turned the ball over 19 times.
"It was the first time we've played with our uniforms on, with officials and it showed," Peele said. "It wasn't pretty."
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