Winthrop Coliseum had one of its best student sections ever Thursday morning.
The Eagles hosted Maryland-Eastern Shore and thousands of students filled the stands. But none of them could drink, drive or vote legally. And they were far less inhibited than 18 to 21-year olds, at least when it came to dancing and screaming during timeouts.
It was Winthrop’s Elementary School Day game, what’s become an annual tradition under coach Pat Kelsey.
And it was loud.
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Roared on by most of the elementary-aged children in a 15-mile radius, the Eagles (6-4) eased past Maryland-Eastern Shore 88-74 for a third win over Division I competition this season.
When Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” came on over the sound system about 45 minutes before the game tipped off, the kids sang along and danced, danced, danced, as the song lyrics instruct.
Later, Drake’s “In My Feelings” played and the crowd of kids, steadily streaming into the Coliseum, chanted the words right along with the Canadian rapper, while some showed off their considerable dance moves.
Just prior to tip-off, Kelsey appeared on the video board and led Coliseum-wide chants of, “Rock the hill! Rock the hill!” and “I’ll believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” The kids followed his lead, and it was easy to imagine that Kelsey was a handful himself as a youngster.
It was time for Winthrop player introductions. The lights dropped and the screams unleashed. The kids stomped their feet as a highlight video played. The players were introduced, but instead of just shaking hands with the other coach and the officials, they ran around the court with t-shirts, chucking them into the crowd and egging on the kids.
The game started and, perhaps feeding off the energy, Winthrop shooters were locked in. Kyle Zunic. Micheal Anumba and Adam Pickett hit 3-pointers, and ear drums split from the cheers. Bjorn Broman drew an offensive foul on Maryland-Eastern Shore with smart screen defense, before Zunic hit another 3 to force an early timeout by the visitors with Winthrop up 12-4.
“It really gave us a boost, especially in the warmup. We had to be loud because they were really loud,” said Zunic. “The whole start allowed for us to come out firing.”
UMES climbed back into the game, but Winthrop delivered another first half stiff arm with a 16-1 run, during which the Hawks (1-11) didn’t hit a field goal for almost six minutes and fell behind the hosts 45-26 at halftime.
Kelsey’s team continues to lean on the 3-pointer. The Eagles shot an incredible 55 triples against Hiwassee College (out of 75 total field goal attempts), making a school-record 24. And the onslaught continued against UMES. The Eagles hit 14-of-38, a 3-point reliance that’s partly a result of the team’s roster makeup, and also its coach’s devotion to primarily shooting 3-pointers, layups and free throws, of which the Eagles shot 32.
Winthrop entered the game ranked fifth in the country in pace of play. According to KenPom.com, the Eagles’ average offensive possession lasts 14 seconds (remember the shot clock is 35 seconds). They matched that preferred pace Thursday, fitting given the adolescent energy flowing out of the stands.
“If you just look at our lineup, that’s the way we need to play,” said Ferguson. “If we run teams, teams will get tired.”
Zunic had a strong outing with a double-double of 21 points and 10 boards. It’s no secret Winthrop needs more rebounding production from its guards. Ferguson added 15 points and nine rebounds, and he and Zunic had 19 of Winthrop’s 41 total rebounds.
Broman added 15 points and Nych Smith hit double figures for the ninth time in 10 games, scoring 13.
And maybe UMES’ Ryan Andino loves children, or has poor hearing, because he shot the ball pretty well, specifically in the first half. Andino was 7-of-14 from 3-point range, finishing with 21 points.
Winthrop travels to Southern Illinois Saturday, then hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 29. The Eagles travel to Florida State for a Jan. 1 game, the Eagles’ final non-conference game this season.
Southern Illinois and Florida State will test one of Winthrop’s cardinal weaknesses, its presence in the painted area (whether offensive rebounding, getting shots blocked or defending opposing teams’ 2-point attempts). Florida State’s 7-foot-4 center, Christ Koumadje, alone has more dunks than 11 ACC teams, according to college basketball stats guru Adrian Atkinson.