Eagles extinguish Flames for big BSC road victory

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Earlier in the week, Winthrop coach Randy Peele did everything but come right out and call Tuesday night's game at Liberty a big one.

On Tuesday morning, he met with his players. He didn't call it a big game then, either, but he dropped enough hints to let them know it could have all kinds of implications on the Big South Conference race.

Whatever he said, it registered, because the Eagles came out and did what no one has been able to do this year -- beat the Flames in the Vines Center, 59-50.

The Eagles (16-9) moved to 7-3 in the Big South to stay in second place, two games back of UNC Asheville, which plays at High Point tonight. The Eagles might even be pulling for the Panthers tonight.

"I was on them pretty good this morning," Peele said. "They didn't know just how big this game was and all the things that could happen from this game."

So was senior Taj McCullough, who scored 10 of his points in the second half and showed the kind of aggressiveness he'd been missing the last few games. He hit 6-of-9 shots, including 5-of-6 in the second half. Three of his second-half field goals came on drives in mismatches against the Flames' slower front-line players.

It was his most impressive performance since a 19-point game against Miami on Dec. 29.

"I've been a little banged up," he said, "and I've just tried to play through it."

He played the entire game, he said, with a headache but proved to be a bigger one for the Flames.

"As long as I was running up and down it felt pretty good," McCullough said. "I just tried to be more aggressive."

And, at least after it was over, he understood what the win meant.

"It puts us in second, and hopefully we can win out," he said.

Charles Corbin and Michael Jenkins added 10 points each as the Eagles shot 63 percent in the second half, scored 34 points in the paint and got 21 points off 18 Liberty turnovers.

Defensively, the Eagles were as good as they've been all season, holding the Flames 24 points under their scoring average at home. The Flames had been shooting over 50 percent overall and 42 percent on 3-pointers and were 11-0 in the Vines Center, including a 29-point thrashing of UNC Asheville on Feb. 9.

Tuesday, they were ordinary against a defense that got into the passing lanes, got hands on a lot of passes and played hard.

Liberty point guard TeeJay Bannister turned it over seven times and his backcourt mates Anthony Smith and B.J. Jenkins gave it up four each.

For once, the Eagles finished a game on the road. All of their conference losses had come on the road.

"We finally got stops," Peele said.

And that started in the final 10 minutes of the first half, after the Flames built an 18-9 lead with 10:16 to play. They scored three points the rest of the half, getting just one field goal.

Their last field goal of the half came with 7:20 to go, and they didn't get another until the 16:40 mark of the second half.

"The last seven minutes of the half," Peele said, "is where we got back in control."

Much of that had to do with stopping Alex McLean, who had eight of the Flames' first 12 points. He finished with 16, but didn't get any in bunches after the early going in the first half. He had seven in the second half, three coming after the Eagles had taken control.

The Flames led for the last time 33-32 on McLean's dunk with 12:43 left, but the Eagles went on a 13-4 run, with McCullough scoring the last eight, to go up 45-37.

A McLean three-point play cut it to 45-40, but Chris Gaynor hit a big 3-pointer, Jenkins scored on a drive and Byron Faison hit two free throws and a layup after a turnover to push the lead to 54-42 with 2:26 left.

The Eagles play four of their last five league games at home, starting with Saturday's game against Radford.

"This was huge," Peele said.