Winthrop players showed up to practice Friday to find an octagon taped on the floor.
The octagon symbolized a mixed martial arts fight. Eagles coach Pat Kelsey wanted to reinforce the kind of game his team would face the following day against a very physical High Point team.
“We’re not gonna sacrifice defense for offense in terms of emphasis,” said Kelsey. “We’re gonna fight and scrap, or at least we better. That’s what this program is all about.”
Thanks in part to its rebounding and defense against High Point, Winthrop is 3-0 in Big South Conference play for the first time since 2006-07. We all know what happened that season (29-5 record, national ranking, beating Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament) and this story is not suggesting that the 2018-19 Eagles are anywhere near that juggernaut.
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But Winthrop’s 80-63 win over the Panthers on Saturday was encouraging for the team because of what it required.
High Point, coached by college basketball legend Tubby Smith, represented the kind of team that has so often given Kelsey’s Winthrop teams trouble: a roster full of thickly built players that gobble down rebounds and drag the game into a mud wrestling-style of play. Picture Radford slowly putting the Eagles in a head-lock in last season’s Big South tournament semifinals, or any of the Eagles’ losses to Coastal Carolina in the tournament final several years before that.
But by the time Josh Ferguson, his tongue hanging out of a grinning mouth, leaked out for a two-handed slam with less than five minutes to play on Saturday, it was pretty clear Winthrop (11-5, 3-0 Big South) would win its seventh game out of the last eight.
“They go after it first shot, second shot and we couldn’t let them punk us here in our place,” said senior guard Bjorn Broman.
Nych Smith led Winthrop with 19 points and Broman added 18. Austin Awad (12) and Adam Pickett (11) were also in double figures, and helped the Eagles limit their turnovers to a season-low eight.
The top 10 rows in each section of the Coliseum were covered and unavailable to fans, which pushed the game’s attendants closer together and closer to the action. Kelsey, who was all over Winthrop’s campus this week imploring students to attend Saturday’s game, was thrilled with the vibe that resulted.
“It felt like a college basketball atmosphere today,” he said. “We’ve kind of been beating the bushes a little bit and I think they responded.”
High Point narrowed the Eagles’ lead to 42-41 with 17 minutes, 46 seconds left, but the hosts answered with a scoring spurt that has become commonplace this season. Ferguson hit his first 3 of the game, Broman buried a right corner 3 and Ferguson hit another when Pickett got into the lane and zipped a pass to the Winthrop big man. The score was 51-43 and the Eagles had breathing room again.
“I thought that took some of the wind out of our sails and we never recovered,” said High Point’s coach, Smith.
Could Winthrop compete on the backboards and on the defensive end of the floor against a physically superior opponent? On this afternoon, yes.
High Point battered Charleston Southern (plus-15) and Presbyterian (plus-16) on the backboards in the Panthers’ opening two Big South wins. But Winthrop out-boarded the visitors 40-39, and the Eagles stayed out of foul trouble, too.
“Our bigs did a good job, us guards, we tried to help them out as much as we could,” said Broman. “It was just such a good balanced game. I think everyone pitched in.”
Winthrop’s pack-line defense gummed up High Point’s driving lanes, and the Panthers only made 3-of-25 shots from 3-point range.
“We’re just not a 3-point shooting team,” said Tubby Smith.
Broman epitomized Winthrop’s scrappy defensive effort, scoring 18, but also grabbing seven rebounds and finding himself on more than a few occasions bodying up a High Point player five, six inches taller or 30, 40 pounds heavier than him.
Nych Smith also took on that role several times, and his offense around the rim was critical, too. Smith had no problem scoring against the Panthers’ thicker and taller defenders and he had four assists.
Awad hit four 3-pointers and defended valiantly in the paint against bigger opponents. The senior spent more time splayed out on the floor than any other player.
Ricky Madison’s double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds led High Point’s effort.
After playing three conference games in seven days, Winthrop plays at home again on Wednesday, Jan. 16 against Longwood.
“I think some of us are coming back for treatment tonight,” said Broman.