Can Winthrop reel in Radford and catch the Highlanders at the top of the Big South Conference basketball standings?
“Definitely,” said Eagles junior Josh Ferguson, after Saturday’s game against Hampton.
It won’t be easy. It will require Mike Jones’ Highlanders to slip up. The Highlanders led second-placed Winthrop by two games after Saturday’s contests, and are threatening to become the first Big South team to win the league by more than one game since Asheville in 2012.
And it almost certainly requires Winthrop (16-8, 8-3 Big South) to win all six of its remaining games, starting Saturday in Rock Hill. The Eagles completed the first step of that process, beating Hampton 101-91 to stay within two games of Radford (18-7, 10-1), which edged High Point in overtime later in the day.
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“”We’re not worrying about catching Radford, we’re not even talking about Radford,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “Standings and all that stuff is for you guys, fans. You’ve just got to focus on the next one.”
Josh Ferguson and Charles Falden, both instrumental in the Eagles’ win over Charleston Southern two days earlier, combined for 36 points to lead the Eagles. The postgame feel was much more positive than a week earlier after Radford’s 80-61 win in the Coliseum. But while catching the Highlanders may linger in the back of Winthrop minds, it’s not a constant obsession.
“We’ve just got to take care game by game, just worry about the next game and not that, and that’ll come,” said Ferguson. “Just keep chopping away.”
In the Pirates, Winthrop found willing participants in an offensive-slanted shootout. Each team topped 40 points in the first half, though Winthrop might have been annoyed to only lead 47-43 at the break. The Eagles had a 47-40 advantage for nearly 2 minutes, but endured a sudden rash of turnovers just as Hampton went over 2 minutes without a field goal. Then the Pirates hit two shots before the intermission to trim the hosts’ lead headed into the locker rooms.
Winthrop led 53-49 early in the second half before embarking on a 19-8 run that broke the game open. Ferguson hit a pair of 3-pointers and Falden was also instrumental, rebounding a miss and scoring to make it 72-55. Hampton never could string together enough defensive stops to get the lead into single digits.
The Eagles have turned the ball over nearly 70 times more than opponents this season, and the spate of giveaways before the half was another episode of a lingering issue. But they held onto the ball better in the second frame, with just six of their 17 turnovers happening then.
And Winthrop also smashed Hampton on the backboards (48-29), especially the offensive ones where 15 second chances helped offset some of the turnovers.
“You smell blood, you want to to keep going, keep going,” said Ferguson.
Falden has shown great patience -- publicly -- while waiting for his shot at regular playing time. That kind of mindset -- same as the keep chopping idea Ferguson mentioned earlier -- helped the sophomore from Virginia be ready when his moment came.
“It’s been tough, being ready, staying confident,” said Falden. “My teammates help build my confidence up, coaches kept telling me to be ready, that’s how I went into practice.”
Falden, starting his second straight game, scored 16 points and gave the Eagles needed energy at several key junctures, including the run that broke open the game. He hit 4-of-5 3-pointers and is making 47 percent this season.
“He’s at the point he’s at right now because he never wavered, he never got his head down, never pouted,” said Kelsey. “And he’s self-aware. He knows what his weaknesses are.”
Ferguson had 12 of his 20 in the first half and hit 4-of-8 shots from 3-point land. He also had eight rebounds.
Nych Smith came off the bench to score 20, with six assists, Bjorn Broman added 18 and Michael Anumba was the fifth Eagle in double figures with 14.
“When he leads us in assists, that’s usually really, really good,” Kelsey said about Smith.
Jermaine Marrow led Hampton with 32 points and Kalin Fisher had 29.
If you remember Winthrop’s 2016-17 season, you know why winning the Big South regular season championship and hosting the conference tournament is important.
Three of the Eagles’ final five games are on the road. They’ll host Presbyterian (next up on Feb. 13) and Charleston Southern, but face tough road tests against Gardner-Webb, Radford and the regular season-closer against Hampton. KenPom.com, which gives win probabilities for every Division I game, has Winthrop as the favorite in three of those five, but only a 51 percent favorite to beat Hampton on the road. Radford and Gardner-Webb are favored in their two home games against the Eagles.
After Radford’s win over High Point, the Highlanders’ seventh league win by single digits, Mike Jones’ team faces Charleston Southern (away), Winthrop and Hampton (home), then finish with High Point and Campbell (away).
One hundred and four of 106 brackets in the Bracket Matrix, which posts the bracketology picks of 106 respected/approved web sites, have Radford representing the Big South in this year’s NCAA Tournament. If the Highlanders win hosting rights for the conference tournament, that number may go up to 106.