After watching his Winthrop Eagles give up 44 points in the second half, score just 24 and blow a 22-point lead in a 73-69 loss to Missouri State on Sunday afternoon, about all coach Randy Peele could do was preach patience and optimism.
Losing for the first time in 24 games and for only second time in 49 games in the Winthrop Coliseum, the Eagles experienced the pains of youth, Peele said.
"When you play young guys and see the things a coach sees, you know you're going to have to go through that," he said. "Today was a result of that. If it's minute, it's going to affect us."
The Eagles (3-2) didn't shoot it well in the second half, got into foul trouble and that, plus Missouri State's defense, spelled more than minute difficulty. At times, Winthrop had freshmen George Valentine and Charles Corbin on the floor at the same time, and while they played reasonably well, that wasn't the combination the Eagles need to hang on.
What affected the Eagles most was some belly-to-belly defense and red-hot shooting by the Bears in the second half, and the play of Chris Cooks, who came off the bench to dump 19 points on the Eagles, 14 in the second half.
The Bears (4-1), who shot 31 percent in the first half, shot 53 in the second, hitting 15 of 28 shots. The Eagles, who shot 58 percent in the first half, made a frigid 20.7 percent in the second half and had more turnovers (7) than field goals (6). Winthrop had one field goal in the final 9:20.
So, it's little wonder that Peele couldn't decide which was worse -- giving up 44 points or scoring just 24.
"They go hand-in-hand," Peele said. "When you struggle to score, that shows up on the defensive end. And that's related to our youth."
This snowball started rolling downhill and picking up steam shortly after Antwon Harris slipped into the lane and scored on a lefty jump hook to put the Eagles ahead 43-21 with 2:36 left in the first half.
To that point, Michael Jenkins had 16 of his 23 points, and the Eagles were getting most anything they wanted offensively. And on defense, they were in the passing lanes and taking away the Bears' favorite shots and getting on the glass.
It was looking easy, but the Eagles opened the comeback door just a crack. Jenkins fouled Shane Laurie on a 3-pointer with two seconds left on the shot clock and Laurie hit three free throws. Back-to-back turnovers by Byron Faison led to a Justin Fuehrmeyer 3-pointer and two free throws for Deven Mitchell.
The lead was down to 14, and even though the Eagles led by 16 at the half, Missouri State coach Barry Hinson had something to work with when he went to the locker room.
"I was really upset at the half," Hinson said, "and even though I'm not Catholic, I may have to go to confession. But what happened at the end of the half did give me a little fodder."
Hinson said his set a goal for his team to play "five, four-minute games" in the second half and win them all. He won four out of five, including the final eight-minute stretch 22-6, when the Eagles collapsed at both ends of the floor.
At the timeout with 3:54 left, Hinson said, he looked in his players' eyes and "felt like we'd win."
Cooks, who was suspended Nov. 15 after being arrested on theft charges and then reinstated Nov. 21 after there wasn't enough evidence for him to face felony charges, had 14 points in 12 minutes of the second half, including scoring eight straight points that cut Winthrop's lead to 54-48.
"We knew he was a scorer," Peele said, "but we didn't have many options (guarding him)."
Cooks capped a 13-0 run with a three-point play to give the Bears a 64-63 lead with 4:26 to go. Taj McCullough scored on a drive and free threw to give the Eagles their last lead, 63-61, but Drew Richards scored inside and Dale Lamberth converted after a Winthrop turnover for a 68-63 lead to cap a 20-3 Bears burst.
Jenkins said there was no doubt what today's practice will likely emphasize.
"Defense, basically," he said. "We have to defend for 40 minutes."
Jenkins wasn't sure the final two minutes of the first half marked the turning point, but he knew they didn't help.
"One possession is something that can change things," he said, "but we had so many chances to keep the lead in double digits and we didn't execute."
The Eagles, who have lost two in a row for the first time since December 2005, go to East Carolina on Wednesday and play at West Virginia on Saturday, the middle portion of a killer four-game stretch.
"People have got to be patient," Peele said. "This team is going to be good. When you play the quality schedule we're playing, your weaknesses will be exposed, but you also learn about your team."
"We've got to be better on offense for 40 minutes," Peele said. "We've just got to get better."