Winthrop had another one of those first halves Thursday night where the Eagles looked like they could beat any team in the Big South Conference, and beat them badly.
It looked like the good-sized crowd spurred by a boisterous student section wouldn’t have much to fear as Winthrop opened a 26-7 lead on Gardner-Webb midway through the first half. The second half wasn’t nearly as easy. The Runnin’ Bulldogs made 70 percent of their second half shots and pulled to within seven points with less than a minute left, but the visitors got no closer as the Eagles (14-6, 6-1 Big South) converted enough free throws to see out a 97-88 win.
“They kept coming at us right ‘til the very end. I was proud of our guys,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “First half was as good as we’ve played all year long.”
Gardner-Webb, which beat Georgia Tech and Wake Forest during an eight-game winning streak earlier this season, lost its 10th straight game to Winthrop. The Eagles have knocked the Runnin’ Bulldogs (12-8, 2-3) out of the Big South tournament each of the last three seasons, and Winthrop’s winning streak in the series survived a late challenge Thursday night.
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Kelsey’s team made 15 3-pointers and also got to the rim with regularity for a variety of layup finishes, difficult and easy. Charles Falden had one of his best game as an Eagle, hitting a season-high 19 points. Bjorn Broman led the way with 20 and Adam Pickett added 19 more.
Gardner-Webb made a pair of free throws to take a 2-0 lead, then the Eagles ripped off 18 straight points to dig a deep ditch for the visitors.
Winthrop’s senior guards got the run started. Broman canned a left corner 3. Pickett blocked a Gardner-Webb shot, knocked in a 3 at the opposite end and it was 8-2. Broman was fouled shooting a 3 and made all three free throws, before Pickett blew by his defender two straight times, finishing both drives with acrobatic reverse layups. Finally Falden drilled a 3, before Gardner-Webb got its first field goal of the game, over seven minutes into the action and already trailing 18-2.
“I thought the first half, just offensively, we just started the game really poorly,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “Credit their defense for that. Pat does a good job and they’re really good.”
Much effort went into putting on a good show for ESPNU’s national TV audience, and Kelsey’s players seemed to understand that.
Kelsey spent parts of Wednesday and Thursday promoting the game, popping up in several Winthrop classrooms Wednesday morning with donuts and pleas for students to attend the game, and filming an educational video for Twitter advising the student section what to do, and not to do, in the stands during the game. He also called in a favor to fellow Cincinnatian, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who sent a video hyping up the game for Winthrop to tweet.
“He’s done a good job, y’all have seen the videos,” said Pickett, laughing. “He’s been working very hard.”
Given the effort Winthrop’s athletic department and Kelsey put into marketing the game and enticing students and community members to attend, starting the game well seemed like a necessity. And the Eagles got that, feeding the crowd’s energy with some early highlights and a big lead.
After Micheal Anumba took a defensive charge with about six minutes left, Kyle Zunic waved his hand toward the student section, and the student section responded with a roar, the kind that confirmed the marketing efforts as worthwhile.
Pickett, Broman and Falden got Winthrop moving early and the trio combined for 58 points. Pickett also had 11 rebounds for a rare double-double.
It was especially good for Winthrop fans to see Falden play so freely on offense. He scored 13 points in 29 minutes against UNC Asheville in the conference opener, but only averaged 10 minutes in the five games since. He hit his first shot Thursday night, which got him and the crowd flowing. But Kelsey wasn’t surprised that Falden broke out Thursday night after the sophomore won the team’s gold jersey (given to the best practice player) in two of the last three weeks.
“A big credit goes to a guy like Charles Falden, I’m very proud of him,” said Kelsey. “He’s a guy that plays backup minutes for us, but he practices his rear end off every day, and when his name’s called he’s ready."
Broman hit 11-of-13 free throws, many of those late in the game when Gardner-Webb began fouling as soon as any Eagle got the ball inside the last two minutes.
“We were trying to extend the game and really trying not to foul Broman,” said Craft.
Winthrop plays at Presbyterian Saturday, Jan. 26, then has almost a whole week off before hosting Radford in an important home game on Feb. 2. After the Presbyterian game, Winthrop will have played five conference games in 10 days.