A win Saturday against Radford would have pulled Winthrop level with the Highlanders at the top of the Big South Conference men’s basketball standings.
Radford, the defending league champs, delivered a firm stiff-arm to the Eagles’ figurative chest.
“They were the better team today, there is no doubt about that,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
Carlik Jones had a game-high 23 points and the Highlanders overcame foul trouble to beat the Eagles 80-61. The winner of the Big South regular season title hosts the conference tournament, and Radford (16-7, 8-1 Big South) took a step toward eliminating Rock Hill from contention on Saturday, moving two games ahead of the Eagles in the league standings.
“I thought our guys were ready,” said Radford coach Mike Jones. “Wasn’t a perfect first half, but to hold them to 31 in the first half was big. And second half, at some point we had resolve, we were gonna be tough in spite of all the adversity we faced.”
Radford missed four free throws in the last 28 seconds and coughed up a 15-point lead in a buzzer-beating loss to Campbell earlier in the week.
But the Highlanders’ 15-point lead against Campbell came with nine minutes left and plenty of time for the Camels to erase the difference. When Adam Pickett laid in a reverse layup Saturday, it cut Radford’s lead to 15, but with just over a minute left. There was no way back in a game where Winthrop encountered a rare problem: it couldn’t make shots.
“A lot of shots we normally make, we didn’t, and Carlik Jones was phenomenal,” Kelsey said. “Every time we made a sniff like we were gonna inch back in the game, he made a big shot.”
Neither team scored in the first four minutes of the game and Radford, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, missed its first 10 3-pointers. The largest first half lead for either side was four points.
Polite drained Radford’s first shot of the second half, a 3, and the Highlanders took over from there. They outscored Winthrop 21-8 in the first six minutes of the second frame to build an 11-point lead (50-39) after Caleb Tanner dropped in a rainbow 3 from the right corner. Nych Smith’s jumper out of a timeout with over 4 minutes left cut Radford’s lead to 64-57, but that was as close as Winthrop (14-8, 6-3) got.
A huge disparity in fouls called (27-18) went in Winthrop’s favor, but the Eagles couldn’t take advantage. They shot 14-of-25 from the foul line, and while Radford certainly struggled with the foul accumulation, Winthrop never seemed to pin the crucial foul that would have DQ’d the Highlanders’ best players while important minutes remained.
The Eagles didn’t shoot the ball well from any portion of the court. They hit just 7-of-30 3-pointers, only the sixth time this season they failed to hit double-digit shots from beyond the arc. Winthrop is 1-5 in those games. And only one of the seven made triples came during the fatal second half.
Jones excelled Saturday, scoring 23, but also grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists, and repeatedly getting a bucket right when the Eagles seemed to be accruing momentum. Jones had a game-high 16 points last March when the Highlanders knocked Winthrop out of the Big South Conference tournament, and the sophomore from Kelsey’s hometown of Cincinnati is earning the label of Winthrop killer.
“He makes good decisions and he’s pretty good at understanding when it’s his time to make a play for himself,” said Mike Jones.
Eagles Bjorn Broman, Adam Pickett and Micheal Anumba all took turns defending Jones.
“He was kind of giving it to everybody,” said Kelsey.
Winthrop’s Nych Smith had 14 of his 22 points in the first half.
Radford plays Hampton Feb. 7, in another game that -- with a win -- could give the Highlanders even more elbow room at the top of the league standings. Winthrop heads to Charleston Southern on Thursday, Feb. 7.
“The answer is showing up at practice with the right mentality,” said Kelsey. “Nobody feels sorry for you, especially when you’re at Winthrop and you’ve been the gold standard in the league for a long, long time.”