By Brian Wilmer, @sportsmatters 

ROCK HILL, S.C. – The club all alone atop the Big South Conference and the league’s unanimous preseason champion took the floor in the Winthrop Coliseum on a wintry Saturday afternoon. To the surprise of many, those were not the same team.
Longwood remained in first place after Saturday’s contest, but Winthrop got 20 points from Preseason Player of the Year Keon Johnson and double-figure scoring from three others to top the visiting Lancers, 83-65, in front of an announced crowd of 1,155.

“I thought the worst thing about us going into this game was we were 3-0 (in league play),” stated Longwood coach Jayson Gee after the game. “The best thing going into the game for us was we were 3-0. I think the confidence allowed us to do what we did the first half, but I thought the depth played a major part.”

Gee’s club found itself trailing by 10 at the half, but posted a number of positives in the period. Winthrop (11-4, 3-1 Big South) shot just 35.9 percent in the period, converting on only 20 percent of its three-pointers. Johnson tallied only six points in the period, connecting on 3-of-8 tries. Longwood (6-9, 3-1) shot 42.3 percent in the period, but committed 10 turnovers that led to 16 Eagle points.

The depth issue Gee discussed quickly came to the fore as the second half unfolded. The Lancers play just seven players in their regular rotation, and Winthrop hit the gas pedal to apply early pressure. That ten-point halftime advantage doubled in the first five minutes of the period, leaving the Lancers down 55-35 at the first media break. The Eagle lead swelled to as many as 28, and did not creep back into the teens until an Isaac Belton triple just ahead of the four-minute mark.

“In the second half, you can only hold them down for so long. They’re going to start that three-point barrage,” said Gee. “I thought, at the end of the day, our seven guys were just exhausted. We just didn’t have enough. If the game was a twenty-minute game, I think it was different. I think the forty-minute game really extended. What we had to do to be where we were at took a lot of energy.”

Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey conceded that the difference in depth was a point of emphasis in preparation. “We definitely talked about it. It’s no secret that their rotation is really short right now, because of injuries and circumstances. That’s tough,” said Kelsey. “We didn’t have to do something different than we normally do, because I don’t care who we’re playing, we want to push the ball and play fast […] We talked about in the second half […] that cumulative pressure of pushing the ball, pushing the ball, pushing the ball would hopefully wear them down.”

Winthrop started the second half hitting its first four shots and eventually hitting 13 of 18 to open the stanza. The Eagles eventually slowed down a bit, connecting on just five of their last 20 tries to finish the half at 47.4 percent (18-for-38) and the game at 41.6 percent (32-for-77). Longwood actually outshot Winthrop for the second half (48.1 percent) and game (45.3 percent), but was done in by points off turnovers (31-8), points in the paint (40-28) and bench points (33-9), among other factors.

The Lancers placed four players in double figures, paced by forward Khris Lane. Lane scored 14 points and hauled in six boards in 30 minutes, drawing praise from his coach. “He’s really been terrific. He’s given us some consistency. He’s been an offensive threat,” said Gee. “Whether they started (center Duby) Okeke to slow him down, and then they had a host of others and they brought Okeke back…for him to come out with 14 and six, I’m pleased.” Guard Isaac Belton added 11 points, with senior guard D.J. Allen and freshman forward JaShaun Smith scoring 12 apiece. Gee mentioned that the original intent to redshirt Smith was changed due to the depth issues, but praised the freshman, saying, “I think he’s going to be a really good player in this league. We need him so (badly), so we’re putting more pressure on him than we’d like, but that last part of the game (including a stretch in which he scored seven straight points), I thought he really stepped up and showed what he could do.”

Johnson paced Winthrop and all scorers with 20 points, adding six rebounds and four assists. Forward Xavier Cooks recorded his third double-double in four games, scoring 13 points and tallying 11 boards. Senior guard Rod Perkins equaled Cooks’ 13, with guard Anders Broman’s 10 completing Winthrop’s double-digit scorers. Perkins connected on 3-of-6 three-point attempts, including multiple tries when squaring up off ball screens. “In the first half, I kind of felt the game out, to see how the defense was playing. Once I see a shot, especially if I really feel good, I’m going to take it,” stated Perkins of his performance.

The win pulls Winthrop into a five-way tie for first place in the Big South after two weeks. The Lancers and Eagles are tied with UNC Asheville, Liberty and Radford atop the circuit. Both schools return to conference play Wednesday evening. Longwood travels to UNC Asheville for a 7:00 (Eastern) start. Winthrop will host Presbyterian in a game slated for a 6:30 tip.

LONGWOOD (6-9, 3-1 BIG SOUTH): Walton 3-6 0-0 7, Allen 4-14 1-2 12, Lane 6-12 2-3 14, Belton 4-7 2-3 11, Smith 4-6 3-4 12, Ezeani 0-0 0-0 0, Gee 0-3 2-2 2, Romeo 0-0 1-2 1, Shields 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 24-53 11-16 65.

WINTHROP (11-4, 3-1): Okeke 1-3 0-1 2, Perkins 4-7 2-2 13, Johnson 8-16 0-0 20, Cooks 5-14 3-3 13, B. Broman 1-5 0-0 2, Blake 1-3 0-0 2, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, A. Broman 4-10 0-0 10, Pickett 3-6 2-2 8, Ferguson 1-4 2-2 5, Prescott 0-1 0-0 0, Poole 0-2 0-0 0, Sadlon 0-0 0-0 0, Davenport 4-6 0-0 8. Totals 32-77 9-10 -83

Halftime—Winthrop 34, Longwood 24. 3-Point Goals—Longwood 6-23 (Walton 1-3, Allen 3-9, Lane 0-3, Belton 1-4, Smith 1-3, Shields 0-1), Winthrop 10-36 (Perkins 3-6, Johnson 4-9, Cooks 0-3, B. Broman 0-4, A. Broman 2-6, Pickett 0-2, Ferguson 1-4, Poole 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Winthrop 42 (Cooks 11), Longwood 34 (Lane 6). Assists—Winthrop 13 (Johnson/Cooks 4), Longwood 4 (Gee 2). Total Fouls—Longwood 15, Winthrop 14. Technical—None. A—1155.

Points in the Paint—Winthrop 40, Longwood 28. Points off Turnovers—Winthrop 31, Longwood 8. Second-Chance Points—Winthrop 14, Longwood 7. Fast Break Points—Winthrop 6, Longwood 2. Bench Points—Winthrop 33, Longwood 9.