Winthrop spotted regular season Big South Conference champion Liberty a 16-point halftime lead before dropping a 91-71 decision Tuesday night in the Vines Center.
The Eagles were trying to become the first conference team to defeat a Carey Green-coached Liberty squad three straight times, but Flames 6-4 center Ashley Rininger made sure that would not happen on this night as she scored a career-high 27 points as she connected on 12 of 14 field goals.
The loss was the 23rd straight for Winthrop in the Vines Center. The Eagles, who knocked off the Flames at home in January and defeated them in the Big South semifinals last March, have not won on Liberty’s home court since Feb. 20, 1996. With the loss, Winthrop falls to 12-7 in conference play and 16-12 overall with one regular season game remaining on Saturday at Presbyterian. Liberty is now 18-1 and 22-6.
While Erica Williams and Aliyah Kilpatrick continued their strong offensive performances with 19 points each to lead Winthrop, it was the play of redshirt junior Pam Decheva who came off the bench to score a career-high 18 points for coach Kevin Cook’s squad. The Bulgarian native connected on 7 of 11 shots, including 3 of 6 from behind the three-point arc. Schaquilla Nunn recorded her 13th double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Winthrop had no answer for Rininger who scored almost at will in the paint. She had 14 points in the first half as the Flames connected on 65 percent by making 22 of 34 shots while Winthrop managed to hit 12 of 35 for 34 percent.
“I thought we fought hard the entire game,” said Cook, “But we gave up more on defense tonight that we have in the last six games combined. It was not because of a lack of effort, but it was because they caught us out of position and made us pay but there is still a lot of basketball to play and we will live to fight again.”
Regarding the play of Decheva, who came into the game averaging just 2.2 points in eight minutes per outing, Cook said, “Pamela is capable of that every night out. It’s a credit to her for the way she performed. She has continued to work hard in practice and didn’t get her dauber down.”
Winthrop led just once in the game at 5-4 after Williams completed a three-point play with 17:52 left in the first period. Liberty answered with a 15-0 run over the next five minutes to take a 19-5 lead. After a 3-pointer by Decheva and an inside bucket by Ezinne Mbamalu made it a 19-10 game at the 11:15 mark, the Flames outscored 13-4 to go ahead 32-14 with 6:40 on the clock. Rininger scored six of the 13 LU points.
The Eagles fought back to trail 47-31 at halftime as Kilpatrick and Decheva combined for 11 of Winthrop’s final 17 points of the half.
Liberty increased its lead to 20 at 60-40 five minutes, and 40 seconds into the second half when Simone Brown hit a short jumper, but Winthrop cut the lead down to 15 twice at 62-47 following a three-point play by Decheva at the 12:46 mark and 64-49 after Kilpatrick’s layup made it 64-49 with 11:49 left.
The closest Winthrop came in the final three minutes was 14 points at 83-69 on a Williams jumper.
Winthrop, will close out its regular season at 2 p.m. on Saturday against Presbyterian in Clinton, SC.