Winthrop got a huge performance from its awesome Aussie in a 90-71 win over Gardner-Webb.
Xavier Cooks had fun tormenting Gardner-Webb and its vocal student fan section Thursday night. The senior poured in a career-high 36 points and added 16 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season, cocking his hand behind his ear after one second half blocked shot -- he had six of those -- and flashing the grin that Eagles fans love and everyone else in the Big South hates.
“Xav was spectacular,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “He stuffed the stat sheet in so many ways. Second half especially, I think he had 23 after intermission. Just took the game over and put it on his back.”
Winthrop (17-9, 11-4 Big South) has won 10 of its last 11 games.
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After Winthrop thrashed the Runnin’ Bulldogs 90-67 in Rock Hill, it was no mystery that they wanted to start better Thursday night. Gardner-Webb (12-16, 7-8) got that, taking an early 21-14 lead, with David Efianayi and Liam O’Reilly shouldering the bulk of the scoring.
A Winthrop barren stretch certainly helped but that ended in emphatic fashion when the Eagles scored 11 points in 1 minute, 49 seconds to take a 25-21 lead. A string of defensive stops spurred offensive production in the form of Adam Pickett, Anders Broman and Xavier Cooks 3’s, the latter of those prompting a timeout by the home side.
Winthrop stayed in front the rest of the half, thanks in part to Josh Ferguson, who had 13 of his 19 in the first half. He finished a neat dish with a slam, before following up Cooks’ miss in the dying seconds with a putback plus the foul. The converted free throw sent the Eagles to the locker room with a 44-39 lead.
A pair of 6-0 Winthrop runs in the second half knocked the wind out of the Runnin’ Bulldogs. A pair of finishes in the paint by Cooks -- he put his defender into a washing machine spin cycle on one -- and a strong left-handed finish by Pickett gave Winthrop a nine-point lead, before Cooks hit a 3, then dropped in a delicate floater for a 13-point lead as the crowd groaned. Gardner-Webb, which had only topped 1.00 point per possession in four of its 14 conference games before Thursday night, hit another scoring drought around the same time, allowing the visitors to pull away.
Standing at the free throw line, Ferguson found Cooks for an exclamation point jam, one that highlighted Winthrop’s biggest advantage Thursday night. Cooks was a known quantity but Ferguson has surged as a sophomore to give the Eagles one of the best front court duos in the league. Thanks to Cooks and Ferguson, Winthrop out-rebounded the hosts 46-31 and doubled them up in offensive rebounds, 12-6.
There isn’t much else to say about Cooks’ night, other than Gardner-Webb couldn’t guard him off the dribble and he made his 3’s when they stood off him.
“He’s making 3’s now, which is even a bigger problem,” said Kelsey. “Opens a whole new deal.”
Ferguson provided force inside for the Eagles, scoring 19 points, many of those dunk and layups. Gardner-Webb seemed to struggle finding Ferguson after he set screens. He’d roll to the rim and teammates found him for easy finishes.
Efianayi was honored before the game for topping the 1,000-point mark for his career, and Thursday night’s contest showed why he’s at that level. O’Reilly had a poor shooting game in Rock Hill, making just 5-of-15, but he made 9-of-17 shots and scored 24 points. O’Reilly had six straight midway through the second half to cut Winthrop’s lead to 58-56 and prompt an Eagles timeout.
With UNC Asheville’s overtime loss to Liberty Thursday night, Winthrop moved into first place in the league. The Eagles have the same 11-4 mark as Asheville, with a head-to-head win in their pocket.
Winthrop has three games left. The Eagles host Longwood Sunday, face UNC Asheville on Feb. 22 (on ESPNU), then conclude the regular season at home next Saturday, Feb. 24, against Charleston Southern.