LEXINGTON, Va. -- Playing VMI is like playing in a thunderstorm. The first two or three bolts of lightning might miss you, but there's one coming that might not.
For the first 16 minutes on Wednesday night in Cameron Hall, Winthrop's Eagles dodged the bolts, but then came a three-minute, 20-second stretch when the skies opened up. The Keydets struck for 22 points, wiped out a three-point Winthrop lead, went up by 12 at the half, 54-42, and cruised to a 92-74 win.
It was the Big South Conference opener for both teams and dropped the defending champion Eagles to 0-1, 1-6 overall. It was the sixth straight loss and far more damaging than the first five.
When it was over, the Keydet players dived into the stands to get the back slaps from fellow Keydets, reminiscent of last season when High Point, after knocking off the Eagles in the conference opener held a midcourt celebration.
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It was the first win in the series for VMI coach Duggar Baucom and snapped a nine-game winning for Winthrop.
"It's been a long time coming," Baucom said.
And hard to take for Winthrop coach Randy Peele.
With 1:10 to play and the Keydets up 92-71 after scoring on back-to-back drives down the lane, Peele wasn't in the mood to celebrate. He called time, yanked on a few jerseys and spent the timeout getting in some faces and pointing at the crowd and the VMI bench.
"I wanted them to see what was going on," a visibly disappointed Peele said. "I didn't want them to forget the feeling. I wanted them to see the faces of the other players when they're taking it to us and they took it to us."
No one took it to Winthrop more than freshman Keith Gabriel, who grew up in Charlotte. He hit | 9-of-20 shots, including 6-of-14 3-pointers and scored 25 points off the bench.
"I knew he was going to play well," Baucom said. "He shot lights out in practice yesterday, and when he made the first I thought he was going to have a good night."
"We made him look like an SEC player," Peele said of Gabriel. "He just rose up and shot it over us and made me look like an idiot for not recruiting him."
He was the guy throwing the bolts in the run that broke it open.
Gabriel, who could be the next point machine in Baucom's offense without a conscience, scored 11 of his 19 first-half points in that game-changing barrage. He started it with back-to-back 3-pointers, added another later and polished it off with a dunk.
"That was the difference in the game," Baucom said. "We looked a lot more like the team that beat Kentucky in that stretch."
There were a couple of other first-half problems for the Eagles. They had 17 of their 25 turnovers leading to 17 VMI points. They didn't handle a VMI press that kept the ball out of the hands of point guard Justin Burton or forced him to handle it deep in the backcourt against double teams.
Despite winning the boards by 10 and shooting 56 percent in the first half, the Eagles were down 12.
"We were tentative against the press and didn't attack," Peele said, "and we had 17 turnovers against a press that wasn't that hard."
Perhaps as stunning as that first-half burst was the first five minutes of the second half, when the Keydets went scoreless and momentarily opened the door for the Eagles. But the Eagles couldn't walk in.
The Keydets missed their first seven shots and turned the ball over twice, allowing Winthrop to cut the lead to 54-49. The Eagles had three chances to get closer, but Cameron Stanley was called for a charge and Burton missed two driving shots.
Then lightning struck again, with Kenon Austin, Michael Sparks and Chavis Holmes drilling 3-pointers to push VMI's lead back to 14.
The Keydets backed their defense into a tight zone and dared the Eagles to win from the perimeter.
"We didn't think they would want to try and do that," Baucom said. And that also helped the Keydets battle better on the boards.
Kenon Austin, who played half the year last season before academic problems and was facing Winthrop for the first time, had 23 points and Travis Holmes had 21.
"Winthrop has a mystique," Baucom said, "but Austin Kenon hadn't played against them."
Winthrop got 18 each from Stanley and Burton and 16 and eight rebounds from Charles Corbin.
Asked where his team is after seven games, Peele said it was a "great question."
"We're going back and practice hard tomorrow."