Winthrop students think Pat Kelsey is crazy. That’s okay as long as they attend games
Winthrop crashed out of the Big South Conference men’s basketball tournament Thursday afternoon.
Pat Kelsey-coached Eagles teams had won all of their previous six tournament openers, but the 2018-19 team was undone by the issue it ultimately couldn’t shake this season: turnovers. Seventeen giveaways helped Charleston Southern keep the Eagles at bay in the second half of a 77-63 win, and the Bucs advanced to Friday’s semifinal against Radford.
Winthrop, meanwhile, headed for a rare early exit.
“Not used to going home after Game 1,” said Kelsey. “It’s not a fun feeling at all, not something I want to get used to, but that’s the way it goes. You get smacked in the mouth in life and have to respond to that adversity. We didn’t get what we wanted today.”
The Eagles (18-12) won both regular season meetings against Charleston Southern (17-14), but only by six points total. The second victory, just a week earlier, required two overtimes. The Eagles turned the ball over 18 times in that win, but survived in part because of the Bucs’ inaccurate shooting.
Barclay Radebaugh’s team wasn’t as charitable Thursday. The Bucs hit 12-of-23 shots from beyond the arc and played an entirely different defensive system. They’ve pressed full-court on defense 99.8 percent of the season, but decided to drop back and plug driving lanes against the Eagles. They made life difficult for Winthrop’s offense, which is predicated on senior Nych Smith’s dribble penetration. And the Bucs completely changed their defensive philosophy with just one day of preparation, after beating USC Upstate in Tuesday’s first round.
Winthrop players “put their head down and they get downhill and if they see open gaps, they just start salivating,” said Radebaugh. “We filled the gaps up, we contested shots. Those adjustments, they really helped us.”
Smith made just 5-of-20 shots in what was almost certainly his final game as an Eagle.
“They did well taking away the spots where we’re most comfortable,” said Smith. “I like to do most of what I do in the paint and every time I got down there, there were one or two guys with great verticality.”
Winthrop was fortunate to only trail by six at halftime. The Eagles crammed passes into spaces with multiple defenders, picked up their dribble too early and often, and threw feathery cross-court passes into onrushing Bucs’ arms. Kelsey calls them “turnovers for touchdowns,” because they lead to points for the opposition.
The Eagles entered the game 340th in the country (out of 352) in turnover margin, with over 100 more turnovers than their opponents, and they picked the worst game of the season to underline that issue. They turned the ball over 10 times in the first 20 minutes, made just 3-of-12 shots from beyond the arc and shot just 35 percent overall.
The Eagles ended the half with a six-minute-plus field goal drought, but six free throws during that same span kept them within striking distance. Charleston Southern, meanwhile, hit seven of its 13 3-pointers, with Christian Keeling and Dontrell Shuler splashing in three each to help the Bucs get in front at the break, 38-32.
Another four-minute stretch without a field goal left Winthrop behind by double digits midway through the second half. Bjorn Broman hit a pair of 3-pointers, then scored on a backdoor layup that put him right at 1,000 points for his career and got the Eagles within eight points (69-61) with 5 minutes, 19 seconds left.
Winthrop got the ball back after a defensive stop on the next Bucs’ possession, but Adam Pickett forced a tough shot, the Bucs again walling off the rim. The Eagles didn’t have a Plan B. And Keeling, who scored 25 points, swished a difficult pull-up jump shot at the other end as a final stiff-arm for the Bucs.
“That’s what first team all-conference guys do, what go-to guys do come tournament time,” said Kelsey.
Winthrop graduates five seniors, including Smith and Broman, who spoke to the media afterward. The Eagles lost three of four games to close the regular season, but had a positive vibe after a short break combined with the invigorating feeling of the conference tournament and its endless possibility.
But none of that made a difference against a focused and prepared Charleston Southern team Thursday. In a rarity, it was the Winthrop program and its fans canceling their Thursday night hotel reservations and heading home.
“These are my brothers, we were feeling good,” said Broman. “This is the closest group we’ve ever had in my four years here. We had some time off, but we were competing, getting after it and we felt really good coming into it, but like coach said, tip your cap to Charleston Southern.”