The 230 pounds Duby Okeke carries are neatly sculpted to his 6-foot-8 frame. The power forward controls his size well as he maneuvers on a basketball floor. It was his emotions he could not manage minutes after Winthrop’s Big South Conference championship game loss to UNC Asheville.
“Three years,” Okeke said between sobs outside Winthrop’s locker room at Gore Arena. “Three years. Three years. Three years.”
He could not stop the cry. Or the crying.
Winthrop lost the conference title game for a third consecutive season. The pain of getting so close to capturing the program’s first title and NCAA tournament berth since 2010 was worn not only on Okeke’s sleeve, but in the words of Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey.
“To see grown men crying their eyes out, it’s hard,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey’s club dropped a 77-68 decision in a game that saw an 11-point, first-half lead dissipate and a championship season vanish among the clanks off the rim of a dismal five-of-33 shooting display from 3-point range.
The previous two championship games were lost on the home court of Coastal Carolina. This went down on a neutral court at Campbell University, which might make it a little more difficult for Winthrop to swallow.
Winthrop long has been the kingpen of Big South basketball, winning nine championships from 1999 through 2010. Seven of those came under the direction of Gregg Marshall, who took his big-time game to Wichita State, and two more under Randy Peele, who could not sustain the program’s success.
In four seasons under Kelsey, Winthrop has returned to lofty status within the league, even without winning the title. His clubs have compiled a 62-35 overall record over the past three seasons.
Like most mid-major programs, Kelsey’s formula is to gather a mixed bag of recruits that includes the overlooked out of high school to the rejects from the power teams to the up-and-comers from the Division II ranks.
Those players include a graduate student, Jimmy Gavin, who has overcome Crohn’s disease and transferred from Wisconsin-Parkside for his final season; a 6-8 forward, Xavier Cooks, from New South Wales; a 5-4 guard, Keon Johnson, who is a miniature version of Muggsy Bogues; a 6-10 center, Zach Price, who was a member of Louisville’s 2013 national championship team before landing at Winthrop via Missouri; and Okeke, whose given first name is Chukwudeubem, which means “God Guide Me” in the Ibo language of Nigeria.
Gavin scored 31 points in the title game, although he was an uncharacteristic 4-of-13 on 3-pointers. Johnson managed only 2 points on one-of-16 shooting and did not hit double figures for the first time this season. Cooks found the 3-point range only once on seven attempts as well.
“It was a great season, proud of these guys,” Kelsey said of his team, which closed out the season with a 23-9 record. “We really grew. We’re rolling. The ball didn’t go in.”
Only Gavin and Price do not return next season from the core group. Okeke, who redshirted one season, will be back for two more to help Winthrop end its string of championship-game losses. Perhaps next time the tears will be of joy for Okeke and Winthrop.