Eagles back in first with win over Radford

Winthrop's Taj McCullough goes for the basket as Radford's Joey Lynch-Flohr looks on.
Winthrop's Taj McCullough goes for the basket as Radford's Joey Lynch-Flohr looks on.

Two weeks ago, after a 15-point loss at UNC Asheville, Winthrop's chances of winning the regular season in the Big South Conference appeared on life support at best.

Now, after a week when everything seems to have fallen in place for coach Randy Peele's team, who beat Radford 74-59 on Saturday night, is in a dead heat for first place.

After missing their first seven shots and falling behind 12-0, the Eagles (17-9, 8-3) went on a 21-4 run to get things under control then jumped on the Highlanders behind -- what else -- defense and a season-high 28 points from Michael Jenkins and 16 from Chris Gaynor.

And while they were winning their third straight, UNC Asheville (7-3) was playing at home against surging VMI and losing for the third straight time 97-75. The Eagles actually hold first place by percentage points but are tied in the loss column with the Bulldogs.

Winthrop has three conference games left, two of them at home, and will host UNC Asheville in the regular season finale. But don't tell Peele about anything that far down the road.

"I did," he said, when asked if he thought his team could get it back to this point after that Asheville loss and even after losing the next time out at Coastal Carolina.

"The reason I thought that," he said, "was every team has to go through adversity and they hadn't had any yet. Basketball is a long season and you've got to overcome adversity."

Jenkins, who had been struggling from the perimeter the last couple of weeks, hit 9-of-16 shots and half of his 10 3-pointers. He also added six rebounds and limited Radford's Kenny Thomas to a 4-for-14 shooting night and 11 points.

"The shot felt the same," Jenkins said. "I told my teammates I have to lead the nation in rim outs. But everything felt like it was on line and I got some great passes from my teammates."

He's not surprised the Eagles have rallied to get back into the race, but no one's ready to celebrate.

"We went 14-0 last year and that was hard," he said. "There are so many things that have to happen when you're trying to be a champion. After Asheville, we knew we'd have to have some help, and we're back in it."

With his team down 12-0, Jenkins got the Eagles back in it on Saturday, scoring eight of the Eagles' first 10 points to key the 21-4 run. Despite shooting 35 percent in the first half, the Eagles led 30-26 at the break.

For a good part of the first half, they didn't have an answer for 6-8 Joey Lynch-Flohr, a hard nosed banger, who had eight early points and finished with 15. But after he got a field goal with 5:24 to go in the first half, the Eagles finally slowed him down. He went more than 15 minutes before his next bucket, and that gave the Eagles a chance to open up the lead.

They started slowly in the second half, too, missing five of their first six shots and the Highlanders (3-7, 8-17), a much better team than Winthrop faced a month ago, cut the lead to 35-34 on Amir Johnson's driving layup.

But with Jenkins scoring 11 and Gaynor adding six, the Eagles went on a 27-13 spurt that pushed the lead to 15.

The Eagles did their best to make it interesting down the stretch, going to the free throw line 12 times and missing half those chances. Radford cut the margin to seven at one point, but couldn't make the jump shot that would have applied more pressure.

Part of that was due to the absence of guard Martell McDuffy, who sat out the game with a badly sprained ankle. The Highlanders could have used his 15 points per game. Johnson finished with 21, but with Thomas struggling the Highlanders didn't have another perimeter threat.

They shot 37 percent for the game and became the eighth league team the Eagles have held under 60 points.

"We could have used another scorer," Radford coach Brad Greenberg said. "They did a good job of getting the ball out of Joey's hands inside and we'd pass it out, but the ball would wind up in the hands someone who was not as good offensively.

"And that's a tough situation be in against what is perhaps the best team in the league."

Up 66-59, the Eagles scored the last eight points, the final four on breakaways by Jenkins and Gaynor.

"This game," Peele said, "was very much like what you'd expect a tournament game to be. It was really a grind. We just couldn't sustain any success offensively, but we did get some open looks for Mike and Chris against their zone.

"I never thought this was a game we had in hand. We won by 15, but this wasn't a 15-point game."

And don't tell him the Eagles have the league race in hand, either. They're just back in it.

"We've got four games left," Peele said, "but the bottom line is we've got VMI on Wednesday, and we've got to approach it one game at a time."

• Rodd, Winthrop women top High Point • 3D