ROCK HILL, S.C. – A fan’s exclamation from the front row sounded more like an exhale after the final horn sounded Saturday.
“It’s a ‘W’ in the column!”
Winthrop shook off a sluggish early start to hold Gardner-Webb without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes in the second half, finally vanquishing the pesky Runnin’ Bulldogs, 77-71, before an announced crowd of 1,567 in the Winthrop Coliseum.
Both teams entered Saturday’s contest coming off emotional double-overtime losses Thursday night – Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said after the game, “These last 36 hours have been a blur” — and the Runnin’ Bulldogs lived up to their nickname early. Gardner-Webb (14-13, 7-7 Big South) got off to an energetic start, particularly in the paint. The visitors at one point enjoyed a 20-4 advantage on points in the paint, as their lead stretched as far as eight points. Winthrop (19-6, 11-3) made some offensive adjustments as the half wore on, and those adjustments, combined with foul trouble for Gardner-Webb stars Tyrell Nelson (four minutes in the first half) and LaQuincy Rideau (11 minutes), reduced the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ halftime lead to a single point.
“They are a tough, physical, attacking team. They’re attacking you in the paint, (and) they’re attacking you in that box around the basket,” said Kelsey of the Runnin’ Bulldogs. “It’s a real test of your defense to be able to try to protect that area as much as possible. When you play them, you have to meet the physical challenge, because if you don’t, they can overwhelm you.”
“I felt so good about the way we played in the first half – on both ends, really,” added Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft.
Rideau picked up his third foul contesting a Keon Johnson shot just 15 seconds into the second stanza, with Johnson’s free throws giving the Eagles their first lead of the contest. The game then turned into a see-saw affair over the next few minutes, with a David Efianayi bucket capping a 7-0 Gardner-Webb run to evaporate the Winthrop margin and tie the game at 54.
That Runnin’ Bulldog bucket would be the last one anyone would see for a while.
An 8-0 Winthrop run would shortly ensue, stretching the Eagles’ margin to 64-56 and offering some separation that lasted for nearly eight minutes. The Runnin’ Bulldogs next conversion from the field, a Rideau make at the 3:54 mark, sparked a 5-0 run that saw the visitors inexplicably down by just a basket with 2:50 to play.
As the shot clock drew its final gasps on Winthrop’s ensuing possession, however, Eagle guard Anders Broman splashed home a three-pointer. That shot proved to be the dagger, providing a margin from which Gardner-Webb could draw no closer.
Efianayi led four Runnin’ Bulldogs in double figures on the day, tallying 13 points and eight boards. The redshirt sophomore was limited to just 4-of-13 shooting, though, and only two of his eight second-half shots found the mark. Craft was quick to credit the Winthrop defense for its adjustments in limiting his team’s star.
“They just did a good job of guarding him one-on-one. He didn’t get a lot of easy looks, and some of his field goal attempts were 12-foot jumpers that were contested and hard to make,” said Craft. “Their pick-and-roll defense on him was pretty good, and they were able to keep him out of the paint.”
Senior All-Conference forward Tyrell Nelson added 11 points and six boards for the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Guard Jamaal Robateau also poured in 11, while Rideau tallied 10 points and six dimes.
Forward Xavier Cooks notched his seventh double-double of the campaign to pace his Eagles, scoring 23 points and adding 10 rebounds. Cooks added four assists, but spoke more after the game of his focus on rebounding Saturday afternoon.
“I feel like (Thursday) against Asheville, we really got punched in the face. It hurt our pride,” said Cooks. “Today, we really bounced back. That was really the emphasis today, and we did a good job of it.”
Johnson, who was honored before the game for his becoming the all-time leading Winthrop scorer in Thursday’s game at UNC Asheville, overcame a 2-for-19 effort from the field to convert on 11-of-12 free throws and finish with 15. Guard Rod Perkins reached double figures for the first time in seven games, finishing with 10.
“If you’re going to be on the court and not be aggressive, you shouldn’t be out there,” said Perkins of his effort. “No matter whether it’s shooting, rebounding or (playing) defense, being aggressive is key.”
Both teams return to conference play Wednesday evening. Gardner-Webb will host Radford in a 7:00 (Eastern) start at Paul Porter Arena. Winthrop will travel to Farmville, Va. to face Longwood. That game will also start at 7:00.
WINTHROP 77, GARDNER-WEBB 71
GARDNER-WEBB (14-13, 7-7 BIG SOUTH): Robateau 3-5 4-5 11, Rideau 4-6 2-4 10, Efianayi 4-13 4-5 13, Nelson 4-9 2-3 11, Niangane 2-4 0-0 4, Jamison 0-0 0-0 0, Turner 0-0 2-2 2, O’Reilly 1-2 3-4 5, Miller 2-5 2-2 6, Laster 3-5 2-2 9. Totals 23-49 21-27 71.
WINTHROP (19-6, 11-3): Okeke 3-4 0-6 6, Perkins 4-9 0-0 10, Johnson 2-19 11-12 15, Cooks 8-21 5-7 23, B. Broman 0-2 2-2 2, A. Broman 2-3 0-0 6, Pickett 1-2 0-0 2, Ferguson 0-0 0-0 0, Prescott 2-2 1-1 5, Davenport 4-5 0-0 8. Totals 26-67 19-28 77.
Halftime — Gardner-Webb 41-40. 3-Point Goals—Gardner-Webb 4-10 (Robateau 1-3, Rideau 0-2, Efianayi 1-2, Nelson 1-1, O’Reilly 0-1, Laster 1-1), Winthrop 6-21 (Perkins 2-6, Johnson 0-5, Cooks 2-7, B. Broman 0-1, A. Broman 2-2). Fouled Out — Rideau (GW), Prescott (WU). Rebounds — Winthrop 40 (Cooks 10), Gardner-Webb 35 (Efianayi 8). Assists — Winthrop 12 (Cooks 4), Gardner-Webb 10 (Rideau 6). Total Fouls — Winthrop 22, Gardner-Webb 21. Technical — None. A — 1567.
Points in the Paint — Gardner-Webb 36, Winthrop 32. Points off Turnovers — Winthrop 24, Gardner-Webb 12. Second-Chance Points — Winthrop 12, Gardner-Webb 6. Fast Break Points — Winthrop 6, Gardner-Webb 2. Bench Points — Gardner-Webb 22, Winthrop 21.