Austin Awad’s 3 before halftime against Asheville was an innocuous cap to a poor first 20 minutes by the Eagles.
Awad wagged his usual three-finger celebration. Winthrop was short two of its best players against the Bulldogs -- senior guards Nych Smith and Bjorn Broman were both sidelined with ankle injuries -- but Awad hit six 3s and scored 19 points to help Winthrop open Big South Conference play with a road win.
His 3 before the half was a timely kick in the pants against a 2-12 Asheville team that still hasn’t beat a Division I team. The Eagles finished with 80 points, after scoring just 19 in the first 20 minutes of the game.
“Austin’s been playing really, really well for us,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “He’s better in his overall game, I’m not just saying interview talk. He’s way more vocal this season, not a guy that’s afraid in a huddle to get after people, and he’s kind of settled in his role here.”
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It was a critical contribution from the pony-tailed senior, one he could smile about and would certainly savor after a difficult junior season.
Awad hit 21 3-pointers in his first seven Winthrop games in 2017-18, but then hit a rut where he made just 2-of-24 over another seven games. The 6-foot-6 shooter had a decent patch in January, but finished the season making just 23 percent from beyond the arc in the final 12 games. Awad only played double-digit minutes once in the last dozen contests and Kelsey said that he resisted coaching at times during practices.
“I know and everybody around me knows that I can shoot the ball with pretty much anybody in the country,” Awad said before Tuesday’s practice. “So when I had some confidence issues, when I wasn’t shooting the ball as well last season, those guys picked me up, my coaches picked me up.”
“We always know he’s one of our best shooters on the team and can always get going at any time,” said junior Josh Ferguson. “So we just tell him to keep shooting. I feel like the confidence we have behind him gives him a tremendous amount of confidence.”
During his worst slump, Awad thought back on his past for perspective. He assumed his career was finished when he didn’t get the offers he wanted coming out of high school. He was a 6-foot-5 post player, but wouldn’t be able to play center in college. He shrugged his shoulders, moved on with life and enrolled at Tallahassee Community College.
‘Happy to be here’
But Awad missed basketball. Bad.
He transferred back to his hometown junior college, and made the Eastern Florida State College team. He worked on his feathery shooting stroke, the ball flicked toward the rim just as he stands on his tiptoes. Awad earned a scholarship midway through the season and picked up a Winthrop scholarship offer not long after.
“I’m just happy to be here,” he said.
Awad’s girlfriend Kiana moved from Florida with him, and she’s there whether the shooting days are good or bad.
“She helps pick me up,” said Awad.
Kiana hasn’t had to do as much of that this season. When shots were not falling for Awad in 2017-18, the rest of his game would drop off too, especially defensive and rebounding focus. That’s not happening this year.
“Now he almost feels like he has more value to our program than just making shots,” said Kelsey.
Plus, Awad’s in a juicy vein of sweet shooting form. He didn’t play during the Eagles’ loss at Davidson in early December but he’s made 20-of-39 shots from 3-point range in the six games since.
Awad is a catch and shoot wing that depends on others, like Broman and Smith, to get him open shots. Winthrop has a handful of players that can drive and spray the ball around, including Micheal Anumba and Adam Pickett, who combined for 12 assists against Asheville.
“I think you can squint your eyes and it’s kind of blurred who is the point guard in our program,” said Kelsey.
All six of Awad’s 3-pointers against Asheville were assisted.
He’s an ideal piece for a Winthrop offense predicated on spreading the court and knocking down 3-pointers. Kelsey’s last five teams have played similarly but the 2018-19 group -- almost completely lacking traditional post players -- is probably the most extreme manifestation of that idea yet. The Eagles are second among NCAA Division I men’s basketball’s 351 teams in 3-pointers made per game (12.7), sixth in 3-point attempts (417) and 14th in team 3-point shooting percentage (39.7).
“This is perfect for me, this is the main reason I came to Winthrop,” said Awad. “We play fast, we shoot it whenever and wherever, with very little conscience.”
Awad said the contributions from other players against Asheville were critical because the team needs “to feel deep.” That phrasing speaks to his search for comfort. As a junior college transfer, Awad’s first season at Winthrop felt anything but comfy. He felt the squeeze that many juco players experience when they arrive at a new school with just two years to play.
“You see the end already, but then you feel like you’re so lost because you don’t know your surroundings, you don’t know your teammates that well, it’s a new school,” said Kelsey. “And you expect so much of yourself early on because you’re an older kid, and then all of the sudden you get humbled a little bit. I just felt like his head was spinning.”
Awad isn’t always nice to himself after a missed 3. Expanding his game has taken the pressure off his shooting. He’s growing a relationship with Winthrop booster and successful former banker John Godbold, and thinking about what’s coming after college. Awad knows his teammates better, knows what to expect from Kelsey, knows the team’s system, knows how he can impact the group positively.
And he’s grateful to still be playing basketball.
“It’s fun,” he said. “That’s the main thing.”
Will Smith and Broman play against Campbell?
What’s the prognosis on Broman and Smith’s ankles? Not clear.
Broman is two starts shy of 100 for his Winthrop career, and the Asheville game was the first that he’s missed entirely during his four years as an Eagle. Smith leads the team in scoring (16 points per game) and assists (3.9) and is the outboard motor for Winthrop’s basketball speedboat.
Broman practiced for about 30 minutes Tuesday but Smith didn’t appear until late, and that was only to get his ankle taped and to do some balancing on one foot. Broman bounced on a mini-trampoline nearby, trying to test his own balance.
“They’re working their butts off,” said Kelsey, whose team faces Campbell (8-7, 1-0 Big South) on the road Thursday night at 7 p.m. in a game televised on ESPNU. “We’ll play them when they’re ready.”
Besides Smith and Broman, three other Eagles average double figure points -- Josh Ferguson, Adam Pickett and Kyle Zunic. So far, Winthrop has avoided serious injury issues.
“It’s like getting a speeding ticket,” said Kelsey. “You don’t just get one, you get another one a week later. So hopefully we got our fill of sprained ankles for the year.”