For the third straight year, Winthrop’s seemingly endless supply of 3-pointers dried up at the worst possible time. The Eagles hit just 5-of-33 shots from beyond the arc Sunday against Asheville, leading scorer Keon Johnson suffering the biggest struggles with a 1-of-16 effort, including misses on all nine of his 3-point shots.
Johnson had scored in double figures in 35 straight contests, but Sunday was not his time. In one late stretch of desperation shooting, Winthrop bombed a trio of 3-pointers at the rim, grabbing a pair of offensive rebounds to keep hope alive. But Johnson missed the last two, and the Eagles were whistled for a foul on the loose ball.
As the teams walked to the opposite end of the court, Johnson stayed down by the Winthrop bench staring up at the rim that so often he’d mastered this season.
Afterward in the postgame press conference, Winthrop junior Josh Davenport sighed.
“I don’t know to describe it,” he said. “It wasn’t our day I guess. It wasn’t like we didn’t play hard, the ball just wasn’t falling. I am proud of our guys, we didn’t stop fighting even though the ball wasn’t going in. It just wasn’t our day.”
It seems fishy that this would keep happening to Winthrop on championship Sundays. Try this explanation: Coastal Carolina and Asheville’s defensive length on the perimeter bothered the Eagles in each of the three title game losses. Counting Sunday’s shooting woes, Kelsey’s teams are 20-of-81 in the last three Big South finals from 3-point range, just shy of 25 percent.
Asheville freshmen Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton - both 6-foot-5 - crouched at the top of the Bulldogs’ aggressive perimeter defense. Kelsey compared the Asheville perimeter defenders’ arms to a bunch of Edward Scissorshands, swinging and bothering the opposition. The Bulldogs sped up and stressed Winthrop in the halfcourt, a possible reason for the amount of open 3-pointers the Eagles missed.
“When you have 6-5 guards that get out there and have a little size to them, you make what most night’s a fairly open shot, a fairly contested shot,” said Asheville coach Nick McDevitt.
Johnson didn’t have his best tournament, culminating in Sunday’s struggle. But it’d be tough to find a player that Kelsey gets more defensive about than his pint-sized backcourt star.
“That kid is not a good player, he’s a great player,” Kelsey said. “That kid has put this team on his back so many occasions, I can’t even count them right now. He’s 5-foot-4 and he plays like he’s 7-foot-4.
“He’s a big, big reason we’re here. We’re not in this game without Keon Johnson.”
By no means was Johnson solely to blame. Others struggled too, including Xavier Cooks, who was 1-of-7 from beyond the arc, after hitting a combined 8-of-16 Friday and Saturday.
“Bunch of open looks,” said Kelsey. “You’ve been at a million practices and we’ve got one of the best shooting teams in America. It’s the way it goes at this level.”
It’s uncertain whether a postseason possibility will surface for Winthrop. The Eagles have shirked the CBI and CIT second-tier college basketball tournaments the last two years for various reasons. After Sunday’s let-down, it’s hard to see that being any different this season.
In fact, Kelsey already seemed to be thinking about next season and a fourth straight opportunity to be 40 minutes away from the NCAA tournament.
“Seeing grown men crying their eyes out, it’s hard,” he said. “But Jimmy’s right; go back to work! Let’s do it again. When do we start?”