Remember when Winthrop had lost three Big South Conference games in a row and all looked bleak for the defending champs?
Yeah, the Eagles don’t either.
Pat Kelsey’s team dropped Gardner-Webb 90-67 Monday night to pull to 3-3 in league play. Five Eagles scored in double figures, led by Xavier Cooks, who nearly had a triple-double, and Winthrop led the entire game en route to a win over the Big South’s top-ranked team.
“We started out 1-3 and weren’t happy about that,” said Winthrop junior Josh Ferguson. “But our conference right around the same level, so it’s anybody right now.”
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The two schools contested three games last season that were decided by 11 total points, including the Eagles’ thrilling overtime win in the semifinals of the conference tournament in Rock Hill. Before Monday night, Gardner-Webb (9-10, 4-2 Big South) had already beaten Campbell, Liberty and Radford, all teams that beat Winthrop (9-8, 3-3).
The Eagles started well and closed the first half on a 7-0 run to lead 38-30. Gardner-Webb continually pounded the basketball into the lane but struggled to convert close-range shots over a forest of Winthrop arms. The Runnin’ Bulldogs made just 3 of 12 layups in the first 20 minutes and they ran into some foul issues too, which helped Winthrop to a 12-2 free throw attempt advantage. Josh Ferguson’s left shoulder hook shot, Austin Awad’s 3 from an offensive rebound and Adam Pickett’s coast-to-coast rebound and layup helped the Eagles close the first half with upward momentum, while the visitors didn’t score in the final 4 minutes, 18 seconds of the period.
Coming out of the halftime break, Winthrop’s “main focus was effort,” said Ferguson.
The Eagles made 7 of their first 8 shots and a 12-2 run early in the second half pushed them into a 17-point lead. Pickett hit a 3, then scored easily in the lane, before Cooks sprayed to Bjorn Broman for a corner 3 that forced a Gardner-Webb timeout.
“Playing on the attack and touching the paint, constricts the defense and leads to drop-offs and kick-outs,” said Kelsey. “I thought we played aggressively and downhill tonight.”
The timeout didn’t abate the hosts’ run, though. Anders Broman buried a 3, Bjorn Broman knocked down a pull-up jumper in the lane and Chuck Falden took a rebound and cruised to the other end for a layup to make it 55-38 with barely five minutes of the second half played. The deficit never got below 10 from there.
Winthrop produced one of its better defensive performances of the season against Gardner-Webb. The Eagles’ defense crowded the paint, contesting every Runnin’ Bulldogs drive, of which there were plenty. “They tests you there,” said Kelsey, but Gardner-Webb made just 11 of 22 layups.
“A lot of what we try to do is get David (Efianayi) in the paint,” said Runnin’ Bulldogs coach Tim Craft. “I did think they did a good job collapsing on our drives. Ferguson and Cooks are long around the rim and we had trouble finishing plays today.”
And the Eagles moved to 3-0 in Big South games when they win the rebounding category. As Kelsey pointed out, certain statistics suggest effort, and Winthrop seemed to win all of those Monday night, out-rebounding the visitors by 14.
“We rebounded really well and that kind of sparked our offense, and we defended really well too and that sparked our offense,” said Pickett. “If we get stops we can run, and that’s where we’re our best.”
Cooks had one of his better all-around performances of the year, scoring 17 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and dishing out eight assists. Ferguson paired with Cooks to dominate the paint. The sophomore had 17 points, six rebounds and two blocks.
Pickett continued his resurgent 2018, scoring 17 and passing out four assists. The junior guard played under control and attacked the rim with gusto. Freshman Chuck Falden gave Kelsey’s team a lift off the bench, scoring 10.
Gardner-Webb’s David Efianayi is a hugely improved player this year, which he demonstrated Monday. He led the visitors with 21 points, dunked on Jermaine Ukaegbu in traffic and had a flying weakside rejection of Ferguson’s wide open-looking layup attempt in the first half.
Winthrop hosts UNC Asheville Thursday night at 9 p.m., in a game nationally televised on ESPNU.
WINTHROP 90, GARDNER-WEBB 67
GARDNER-WEBB (9-10): Zeck 1-4 0-0 2, Niangane 0-2 0-0 0, O’Reilly 5-15 0-0 12, Efianayi 8-19 3-4 21, Turner 1-5 2-4 4, Laster 6-14 1-2 13, Robateau 4-7 0-0 10, Jenkins 1-1 0-0 3, Jamison 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 27-70 6-10 67.
WINTHROP (9-8): Ferguson 6-8 5-6 17, B.Broman 4-9 0-0 11, Pickett 6-11 2-2 17, A.Broman 2-8 2-2 8, Cooks 7-13 3-6 17, Zunic 0-2 0-0 0, Ukaegbu 1-1 0-2 2, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, Scerbinskis 0-0 0-0 0, Awad 2-4 0-0 6, Pupavac 0-0 0-0 0, Erps 0-0 0-0 0, Falden 4-4 0-0 10, Blake 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 33-62 12-18 90.
Halftime—Winthrop 38-30. 3-Point Goals—Gardner-Webb 7-20 (Robateau 2-4, O’Reilly 2-5, Efianayi 2-6, Jenkins 1-1, Zeck 0-1, Laster 0-3), Winthrop 12-33 (Pickett 3-5, B.Broman 3-8, Falden 2-2, Awad 2-4, A.Broman 2-8, Blake 0-1, Zunic 0-2, Cooks 0-3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Gardner-Webb 23 (O’Reilly 5), Winthrop 43 (Cooks 14). Assists—Gardner-Webb 11 (Robateau, O’Reilly 3), Winthrop 22 (Cooks 8). Total Fouls—Gardner-Webb 15, Winthrop 12. A—996 (6,100).