Pat Kelsey steadily ascended the ladder with his son, Johnny, cradled in his right arm and a pair of scissors in his left hand.
Balancing “Johnny Ballgame” on the top step, Kelsey snipped a strand of the net off the rim at Winthrop Coliseum and the crowd still gathered behind the goal cheered. Winthrop beat Campbell 76-59 on Sunday afternoon to bag its first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.
The Coliseum student section poured on the court following the Eagles’ first Big South title win at home since the vaunted 2006-07 squad. The Eagles had fallen short in the conference tournament finals each of the last three years but broke through against the worn down No. 7 seed Camels, who were playing their fourth game in six days.
“We’ve gotten really close the last three years and I’ve been in some real lonely locker rooms afterward,” said Kelsey, who became the third different coach to guide the Eagles to the NCAA tourney. “You sit in that empty room and realize how close you were and how hard it is to get back there and there’s no guarantees.”
Kelsey’s eyes were red and wet. Johnny sat on his lap and toyed with the blue Big South championship hat plopped on his own head.
“This is such a determined bunch. They were not gonna be denied.”
Keon Johnson heated up in the second half to finish with 26 points, while fellow senior Roderick Perkins chipped in 15. Xavier Cooks had 17 points and 14 rebounds for his 11th double-double.
Winthrop (26-6) led by seven points at the half after shooting 50 percent from the floor and making 5 of 11 from 3-point land. Perkins lifted the Eagles with 15 points, making 6 of 7 shots and each of three 3-pointers. He hit two of them during a strong start for the hosts, who got Duby Okeke open for a slam on the first play of the game and led 12-2 with barely 4 minutes played.
Seventh-seed Campbell, playing in its first Big South final since 1994, grew into the game gradually after making just one of its first eight attempts, but Winthrop’s defense forced the Camels (17-17) into a number of contested long range shots and they looked flat after an upset-filled run through the first three rounds of the tournament.
“Today I felt like we were a little tired,” said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan. “I knew it was gonna be a challenge. I was hoping we could slow them down a little bit and at the end it was tough to slow them down in transition.”
An 11-2 run in the first half gave Winthrop the lead, and another 11-2 surge to start the second buried the Camels. It was Johnson’s show, as he hit three 3-pointers in the first couple minutes to put the visitors on the ropes.
Winthrop led UNC Asheville by nine in the 2016 final before collapsing in the second half, but there was no repeat Sunday.
“We had to finish the whole 40 minutes,” said Johnson. “I think we did good defensively in the first half and it carried on to the second half.”
Winthrop held Campbell under 0.97 points per possession in both regular season wins over the Camels, and was even stingier on Sunday, holding McGeehan’s team to 0.87.
“Winthrop is always tough and Winthrop always guards,” said Kelsey. “We score a lot of points and we talk about that in recruiting. But deep down in our core we’re a defensive program.”
Avoiding foul trouble was part of the championship defensive performance. The Eagles had just four at the half and finished with only nine. Crucially, Cooks stayed on the court as much as he wanted and Okeke did the same.
As much as Winthrop exorcised some Big South final gremlins, Johnson did as well. He’d struggled in the Eagles’ three previous losses on the final Sunday and he had a fairly quiet first half this time too. Somebody put him in the microwave at halftime because he scored 12 points in the first couple minutes of the second period, including multiple 3s during the 11-2 burst that cooked the Camels for good.
Cooks pitched in with what’s becoming normal, a double-double. Perkins gave Winthrop a huge lift in the first half, scoring all of his 15 points in the first 20 minutes and carrying the team while Johnson tried to find his footing offensively.
Winthrop’s defense on Chris Clemons was very good. Clemons averaged 37 points in the Camels’ first three tournament wins, but most of his shots Sunday had a hand in his face, and though that hadn’t really mattered in the tournament’s first three games, it was a big deal on Sunday when Clemons wasn’t at his most fresh. He finished with 29 points but made just 9 of 27 shots and 6 of 18 from 3.
The NCAA tournament selection show at 5:30 p.m. on March 12 at the Coliseum. The Eagles will find out who and where they’re playing in the first round of the Big Dance, something that dawned on Kelsey when a reporter asked him what seed he thought his team might get.
“It’s a big relief,” he said. “Right now, I feel as relieved as I do elated. But we’re gonna celebrate it.”
WINTHROP 76, CAMPBELL 59
CAMPBELL (17-17): Eudy 4-6 0-0 8, Whitfield 2-4 0-0 4, Gensler 2-8 0-0 4, Clemons 9-27 5-5 29, Burk 4-14 0-0 11, Lado 0-0 1-2 1, Oliver 1-3 0-0 2, Ray 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-63 6-7 59.
WINTHROP (26-6): Perkins 6-11 0-0 15, Okeke 1-2 2-4 4, B.Broman 2-4 0-0 5, Johnson 7-16 8-9 26, Cooks 5-7 6-8 17, Poole 0-0 0-0 0, Ferguson 0-0 0-0 0, Davenport 0-3 0-0 0, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, Prescott 1-2 2-2 4, A.Broman 1-5 2-3 5, Sadlon 0-0 0-0 0, Blake 0-1 0-0 0, Pickett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-51 20-26 76.
Halftime—Winthrop 41-34. 3-Point Goals—Campbell 9-36 (Clemons 6-18, Burk 3-10, Eudy 0-1, Ray 0-1, Oliver 0-2, Gensler 0-4), Winthrop 10-26 (Johnson 4-10, Perkins 3-6, Cooks 1-1, B.Broman 1-3, A.Broman 1-5, Blake 0-1). Fouled Out—Whitfield. Rebounds—Campbell 31 (Eudy 10), Winthrop 32 (Cooks 14). Assists—Campbell 5 (Gensler 2), Winthrop 13 (Cooks 5). Total Fouls—Campbell 16, Winthrop 9. A—5,109 (6,100).