Winthrop director of basketball operations Mitchell Hill streamed in the back door of Davidson College’s Belk Arena, followed by the rest of the Eagles’ players and coaches.
Within four hours, they would have a stronger idea of where the team stood in its months-long quest to reach the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Bob McKillop’s 7-1 Wildcats, with their fundamental perfection and military-like discipline, would challenge Pat Kelsey’s Winthrop team.
Raivis Scerbinskis, the Eagles’ 6-foot-8 Latvian sharpshooter, was dressed and first on the floor in 10 minutes. He hoisted shots alone for a few minutes until managers and assistant coaches filtered out into the brightly lit arena.
Although the opponent was highly regarded by Eagles players and coaches, the pregame atmosphere was initially light. Freshman Micheal Anumba and former Winthrop player and current graduate assistant coach Andre Smith shot 3-pointers while seated on the bench. Both missed. Badly.
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They laughed, there was a lot of laughing actually. The group was loose as it jogged to half court under the watch of new strength and conditioning coach Eli Foy, who was just hired from the University of Arizona about a month ago.
By that time, Smith and Johnny Kelsey, the 5-year old son of Eagles head coach Pat Kelsey, were back in the locker room.
“What’s up bro, you working out there?” Kelsey asks his son.
Johnny was indeed working. So hard that he got a bloody nose. Dad took a break from getting dressed to plug some tissue in Johnny’s nose. Johnny was back on the floor in about 5 minutes.
‘Gotta get shots, bro!’
The vibe turned more serious when the players filtered back into the visitor’s locker room for their pregame personnel meeting less than an hour before the game. Assistant coach Mike Howland runs this portion of the pregame, a nod to his detailed eye. He started with Winthrop point guard Nych Smith, quizzing him on Davidson’s talented Icelander, Jon Axel Gudmundsson. Smith rattled off Gudmundsson’s tendencies, which include swishing any open jump shot.
Sophomore guard Charles Falden was next up. Howland tested him on Davidson sharpshooter Luke Frampton, who Falden immediately characterized as “green-green, the greenest,” meaning Frampton has two green dots next to his name on Winthrop’s defensive scouting report. Falden aced his quiz and gets an “exactly right. That’s perfect, Chuck,” from Kelsey, who was pacing in the next room but intermittently darted in to make a point. Bjorn Broman, Jermaine Ukaegbu and Anumba were also quizzed in front of the group, and all recited detailed scouting reports about opposing players like nursery rhymes they had learned as children.
Kelsey took over, going through defensive and offensive keys for his team. His face turned pink as he revved up.
“If 24 (Carter Collins) scores 12 (points), bad sign,” a reference to a Davidson bench player.
Davidson star Kellen Grady would probably get his 3’s, but Kelsey implored his team to limit Frampton and Kishawn Pritchett’s looks from beyond the arc.
There were easily 15 more individual items Kelsey ran through. After finishing the defensive points, he clapped his hands and strode out the door. A player or two rose uncertainly. Kelsey was back in the room in the next moment to finish offense. He got a little excited. Everyone laughed.
One of the Eagles’ offensive keys was not turning the ball over. Winthrop couldn’t shoot 3’s, which it’s very good at doing, if it turned the ball over.
“Gotta get shots, bro!” is written on the board. Kelsey looked at Scerbinskis and asked him how to say ‘bro’ in Latvian. Scerbinskis answers: “Bras.”
“Gotta get shots, bras!” Kelsey shouted as the players again laughed.
With 32 minutes remaining until the tip-off, the team headed back out for its more earnest warmup. Fans began to filter into Belk Arena, which was so brightly lit that some of the older fans wore shades.
Back in the locker room, the assistants changed into their suits. The players filed in one more time before the game, with about 12 minutes left in pregame, and Kelsey shared his final thoughts. He challenged his players to not lose multiple wars -- wars being the four-minute segments that make up a half of college basketball -- in a row. Resilience would be key against such a vaunted offensive team as Davidson.
“If we come out of that first war and we’re down four, fix it!” Kelsey said.
‘A veteran, savvy team’
‘The first half was mostly a success. The Eagles led for big chunks before the Wildcats surged late for a 51-45 lead.
Winthrop shot over 50 percent and held the hosts below 45 percent, while imposing a drag race pace on the game. At one point, the Davidson student section began to chant “let’s slow down... let’s slow down.” Winthrop prints posters with scouting info on the opposing team’s players most likely to see game action. The breakneck pace forced Davidson to use at least two players that weren’t deemed worthy of Winthrop scouting posters.
There were chunks of the first half where an upset looked absolutely possible. Jermaine Ukaegbu threw a Davidson shot off the backboard, before Nych Smith unselfishly made an extra pass to Josh Ferguson, who buried a 3 from the elbow to make it 33 all.
But it only took Davidson a few trips up and down the court to vanish that feeling. Smith knocked in a 3, but chirped something at the Davidson bench and was whistled for a technical foul. That’s when the Wildcats got more of a grip on the game and took the lead for good.
At halftime, Kelsey walked into the locker room and wrote “SMART” on the board.
“We’ve got to be a veteran, savvy team!” he said, looking at Smith for a sustained moment.
But the Eagles weren’t that in the second half either. Early in the period, Adam Pickett turned the ball over, Ferguson was called for a charge, and Davidson opened up a double-digit lead.
The lights in Belk Arena went out for a few minutes, but it wasn’t lights out for the Eagles, not yet. After not scoring for more than three minutes, they made it a three-possession game with a 10-5 spurt catalyzed by Zunic and Smith.
But Davidson’s style of play slowly vaporized the pregame preparation from the Winthrop players’ minds. When the Wildcats had the ball they put the Eagles through a mental and physical obstacle course. On one play, Bjorn Broman later said that Davidson’s star guard Grady ran him through seven or eight screens before catching the ball. That wore down the Eagles. Fouls piled up and their heads and shoulders dropped when shots didn’t.
“It’s really tough to guard so many actions because they screen a lot, all the time,” said Zunic. So you’ve got to be aware for the whole 30 seconds, and then you’ve got to get a board at the end of it.”
Grady is the potential future NBA player, but Gudmundsson, one of Davidson’s six foreign players, stuck the dagger in Winthrop with a ruthless second half performance, whether dropping in a baby’s bottom-soft runner in the lane, or splashing in a 3 from deep. Despite the Eagles’ intimate knowledge of his tendencies and habits, he finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds, leading Davidson to a 99-81 home win over Winthrop.
Davidson’s 6-foot-10 Austrian Luka Brajkovic, who gave the Eagles a torrid time in the paint, polished off the win with a putback dunk in the last seconds, a demoralizing way to finish a game that started so well for Winthrop. The Eagles won the games’ first two four-minute wars, then the lost the final eight.
“Their efficiency in the second half was defeating,” said Kelsey. “Then it unravels a bit.”
‘That has to bother us’
Winthrop’s locker room was quiet. Players stared straight ahead, ripped tape off their ankles or sipped on cups of Gatorade. No one said much of anything outside of some barely audible mumbles.
Kelsey had plenty to say, especially about the team’s absent defending.
“That has to bother us,” he yelled.
There has to be a desperation, he said. And it has to come from the players, not the coaches.
“We were right there but as Coach said, it’s not good enough to be right there,” Broman said afterward. “Second half, I don’t know what it was, we kind of got caught up in the moment, they went on some runs. But that happens, it’s basketball. Got to get everyone regrouped and back on track.”
Before Kelsey dived in to the 20 things buzzing through his mind that his team didn’t do well in the game, he took a step back, then changed his focus for a moment. He grabbed the dry erase marker and scrawled on the board “EXAMS.”
“That’s where your focus needs to be,” he said.
For some it already has been. Broman turned in a 20-page project analyzing a sports facility the day of the Davidson game. Zunic is thinking about the History 111 exam he’s got, as well as two papers in other classes. And Anumba, who had seven assists against Davidson, has computer science, finance and business exams, though he was certain he’ll end the semester with a strong GPA.
Winthrop is off five of the next six days and doesn’t play another game for nearly two weeks, its longest break for the rest of the season, so the Davidson loss may linger a bit.
“The season in general is always a learning process,” said Kelsey,” and sometimes you get better from a loss and you learn more from a loss than you do from a win.”
Zunic and Anumba echoed that thought on their way out the door to the team bus parked out back in the cold dark. It was time to stash the huge amount of scouting info about Davidson in a back part of their brains, to focus on world history or marketing exams. But it would also take at least the hourlong bus ride home to get Kelsey’s main point out of their heads.
“For us to be a championship caliber team, we are a dangerous offensive scoring team, but we have to have our core identity and we have to hang our hat on our ability to stop teams, and we’re not there yet,” said Kelsey. “And I think tonight is a great example of that.”