Winthrop guard Keon Johnson led the Eagles with 24 points.  (Brian Wilmer/College Hoops Digest)

ROCK HILL, S.C. – The matchup of two of the Big South’s top three clubs at Winthrop Saturday afternoon promised to be a back-and-forth affair that never saw much separation.  For 28 minutes, that was exactly the case.

The first 12 minutes, though, saw Winthrop break out to a 26-8 lead.  The Eagles capitalized on that margin to ward off visiting Liberty, taking home an 84-67 victory before an announced crowd of 2,258 at Winthrop Coliseum.

“I think our guys really set the tone defensively in those first couple of possessions,” said Winthrop associate head coach Mark Prosser of his team’s start.  “I think they were difficult to score against.  Their attention to detail was very, very good, and I thought you could see that come to fruition in those first several minutes of the game.”

(POSTGAME AUDIO:  Winthrop associate head coach Mark Prosser)

Winthrop (21-6, 13-3 Big South) staggered the Flames with the fast start, though the Eagles could not keep the visitors on the canvas.

Liberty (18-11, 13-3) got three straight Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz triples as part of a burst in which the freshman scored 10 straight points for his club.  The margin finally shrunk to 38-29 on a John Dawson layup with just over two minutes in the first half, though Winthrop managed to take a 43-32 advantage to the interval.

The second twenty minutes proved to be much more of a back-and-forth affair, making the Eagles’ early burst all the more important.  The home side’s advantage hovered in the low teens as the clubs traded baskets.  The physical play on both ends of the floor came to a head midway through the second half, as the Liberty bench was assessed a technical foul.

Still, Liberty coach Ritchie McKay acknowledged after the game that Winthrop’s defensive toughness played quite the role.

“It was really physical.  I mean, really physical,” said McKay.  “They redirect you.  Their switching – they step up into you, (and) they get you off your lines.  If you don’t have the audacity to drive it … I thought we did sometimes, but we couldn’t get to the line at the same rate that they did.”

(POSTGAME AUDIO:  Liberty coach Ritchie McKay)

McKay’s Flames gradually chipped away at the margin in the second half, but the Eagles seemed to match Liberty’s every burst in the final minutes.  The Eagle lead was reduced to as few as 11 points early in the half and 13 near the eight-minute mark, but Winthrop went on runs on both occasions to again establish breathing room.

“They’re a 21-win team.  They’re a really good team.  They’ve been in the Big South championship game for the last three years, and a lot of teams are behind the play against them,” said McKay.  “My hat’s off to them, because I think they were tough to play against.”

Pacheco-Ortiz led three Flames in double figures, tallying 15 points.  Just three of those points came in the closing half, however, as Winthrop limited the freshman sharpshooter to one conversion on four attempts.  Redshirt junior Ryan Kemrite contributed 14, with sophomore guard Lovell Cabbil adding 10.  The Flames finished at 40.4 percent (21-for-52) from the field, hitting 19-of-38 tries after their sluggish start.

Winthrop stalwarts Keon Johnson and Xavier Cooks continued their recent string of big days.  Johnson poured in 24 on 8-of-17 shooting, while Cooks collected his third-straight double-double (14 points, 13 boards).  Eagle guard Anders Broman added 17, knocking down 6-of-8 tries.

“We just came out from the beginning, from the tip, (feeling) that we were all just locked in.  Even at the shootaround today, we were all really locked in,” said Broman.  “That just shows the maturity of our team.  We were all prepared and ready for this game, and it just carried out to the court.”

(POSTGAME AUDIO:  Winthrop’s Anders Broman and Xavier Cooks)

The win ties Liberty and Winthrop for second in the Big South, one game behind league-leading UNC Asheville.  Liberty closes the season at UNC Asheville next Saturday after a visit from in-state rival Longwood Thursday night.  Winthrop, meanwhile, will finish its schedule with a Thursday night visit from Charleston Southern and a trip to Presbyterian, waiting to see what their conference tournament fate holds.

“All of them are big at this time of the year,” said Prosser.  “You put yourself in your position by the games you’ve won and lost.  We’ve put ourselves in our position – and we own that – by the games we’ve won and lost, and all we can do is try to prepare for our next one, and do our best to win on Thursday night.”


LIBERTY (18-11, 13-3 BIG SOUTH): Cabbil 2-3 6-6 10, Kemrite 5-12 1-1 14, Pacheco-Ortiz 4-12 3-4 15, Gardner 3-6 1-3 8, Dawson 2-7 0-3 4, Baxter-Bell 1-3 3-4 5, Reid 2-5 0-0 5, Barmore 0-1 0-0 0, Chen 1-2 0-0 3, Farquhar 0-0 0-0 0, E. Talbert 1-1 0-0 3, J. Talbert 0-0 0-0 0, Hiepler 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-52 14-18 67.

WINTHROP (21-6, 13-3): Okeke 2-2 2-5 6, Perkins 2-3 0-0 6, Johnson 8-17 5-7 24, Cooks 6-13 2-2 14, B. Broman 2-6 2-2 8, Blake 0-0 0-0 0, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, A. Broman 6-8 2-2 17, Pickett 0-0 0-0 0, Ferguson 0-1 0-0 0, Prescott 1-2 3-4 5, Poole 0-0 0-0 0, Sadlon 0-1 1-2 1, Davenport 1-3 1-1 3. Totals 28-56 18-25 84.

Halftime — Winthrop 43-32. 3-Point Goals—Liberty 11-24 (Kemrite 3-7, Pacheco-Ortiz 4-7, Gardner 1-2, Dawson 0-2, Reid 1-3, Chen 1-2, E. Talbert 1-1), Winthrop 10-25 (Perkins 2-3, Johnson 3-9, Cooks 0-3, B. Broman 2-5, A. Broman 3-5). Fouled Out — Gardner (LU). Rebounds — Winthrop 34 (Cooks 13), Liberty 29 (Pacheco-Ortiz 6). Assists — Winthrop 13 (Johnson/Cooks 4), Liberty 9 (Reid 4). Total Fouls — Liberty 21, Winthrop 18. Technical — Team (LU). A — 2258.

Points in the Paint — Winthrop 34, Liberty 16. Points off Turnovers — Liberty 12, Winthrop 10. Second-Chance Points — Winthrop 5, Liberty 4. Fast Break Points — Winthrop 2, Liberty 0. Bench Points — Winthrop 26, Liberty 16.