ROCK HILL, S.C. – Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey frequently speaks of the banners that hang from the rafters above the Winthrop Coliseum playing surface. Now he can talk of his own.
Big South Player of the Year Keon Johnson also added another award – Big South Conference Tournament MVP – and scored 26 points, including 12 in a three-minute, 34-second span of the second half, to guide his Eagles to a 76-59 victory over Campbell in the 2017 Big South championship game.
“I knew when I walked in the locker room today that this was a determined bunch that wasn’t going to be denied,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey after the game. “(Johnson and forward Xavier Cooks) led the charge, like they always do, and I’m just proud of every single one of them.”
The usually soft-spoken Johnson rallied his team with a speech before the game, which elicited a reference to a long-ago television ad campaign from stock firm E.F. Hutton from his coach. “(I said to) protect your brothers, at all costs,” said Johnson. “Just doing the little things for them. Going to war for them. That was the main thing I discussed.”
“Keon’s a man of very, very few words. He’s been that way since he got here. When he talks, the room stands still, and guys lean forward,” said Kelsey. “When Keon talks, everybody listens, but when he talks passionately, like he did, I didn’t have to say another word. In my mind, we were going to win the game right there.”
The home club got the announced crowd of 5,109 fans equally excited early, as the Eagles raced out to a 12-2 lead over the game’s first five minutes. Senior Rod Perkins, who was the leading scorer in NCAA’s Division II at Erskine College in 2014, scored 15 of his club’s first 28 points, as his side built an advantage that stayed at or near seven points for the final eight minutes of the opening stanza. Winthrop (26-6) took a 41-34 lead to the locker room, holding star Campbell guard Chris Clemons to just 10 points on 2-for-12 shooting.
While Clemons struggled to get untracked in the first half, so too did Johnson. The star senior connected on just 1-of-8 tries in the period, scoring six points. The second half would see both sharpshooters find their mark, but Johnson’s turn came first.
Johnson connected on back-to-back triples in the first minute-plus of the half, widening the single-digit margin to 13 and providing some much-needed breathing room. Campbell (17-17) got a Shane Whitfield bucket to momentarily stem the tide, but a 9-3 Eagle run extended the Winthrop lead to 18.
A Cooks layup at the six-minute mark made the score 66-46, and started the celebration for the garnet-and-gold-clad fans. Clemons scored six of his 19 second-half points in a run that reduced the lead to 14, but the Camels could draw no closer. As the final seconds wound down, the Winthrop fans stormed the court, celebrating the school’s first title since a 64-53 decision over Coastal Carolina in 2010. Winthrop’s last championship win on its own floor came as the third of three consecutive titles between 2005 and 2007.
“Today, I felt like we were a little tired, honestly. I’m not making an excuse. It looked like some tired legs out there,” said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan, whose Camels won three games over a four-day span to earn a berth in the title game. “I knew it was going to be a challenge. I was hoping we could slow them down a little bit. At the end, it was tough to slow them down in transition.”
Clemons paced the Camels and all scorers with 29 points on 9-for-27 shooting. The sophomore connected on six of 18 tries from beyond the arc. Camel guard Marcus Burk also contributed 11 in 37 minutes of action.
Johnson made 6-of-7 shots in the second half to finish with 26, leading the Eagles. Cooks tallied his third double-double in as many tournament games, scoring 17 points and snagging 14 boards. Perkins totaled 15, as his Eagles shot 45 percent (23-for-51) on the day.
Joining Johnson on the All-Tournament Team were Clemons, Cooks, Charleston Southern freshman Christian Keeling and Gardner-Webb sophomore LaQuincy Rideau. Keeling compiled 47 points and 21 boards in two tournament games, while Rideau scored 39, grabbed 13 boards, dished out eight assists and recorded six steals.
Campbell closes its season at 17-17, and will await word on a possible postseason bid. McGeehan spoke glowingly of his team’s accomplishments after the game, and said that a postseason spot “would be a good opportunity” for his young team.
“I think there’s so much to be proud of. I’m really proud of the steps that these guys made this week and this season, from a maturity standpoint,” said McGeehan. “I think that this kind of a run is a program-changing type thing.”
Winthrop will have its NCAA Tournament revealed in one week. Selection Sunday takes place next Sunday, March 12. CBS will unveil the brackets in a one-and-a-half-hour show that begins at 5:30 p.m. (Eastern). The First Four games will take place March 14 and 15, with the first round being contested March 16 and 17.
On a day in which Kelsey was tasked with many words, he summed up the entire day with one, which likely echoed the sentiments of his team and its fans.
#1 WINTHROP 76, #7 CAMPBELL 59
CAMPBELL (17-17): Clemons 9-27 5-5 29, Gensler 2-8 0-0 4, Eudy 4-6 0-0 8, Whitfield 2-4 0-0 4, Burk 4-14 0-0 11, Oliver 1-3 0-0 2, Ray 0-1 0-0 0, Lado 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 22-63 6-7 59.
WINTHROP (26-6): Okeke 1-2 2-4 4, Perkins 6-11 0-0 15, Johnson 7-16 8-9 26, Cooks 5-7 6-8 17, B. Broman 2-4 0-0 5, Blake 0-1 0-0 0, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, A. Broman 1-5 2-3 5, Pickett 0-0 0-0 0, Ferguson 0-0 0-0 0, Prescott 1-2 2-2 4, Poole 0-0 0-0 0, Sadlon 0-0 0-0 0, Davenport 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 23-51 20-26 76.
Halftime — Winthrop 41-34. 3-Point Goals—Campbell 9-30 (Clemons 6-18, Gensler 0-4, Eudy 0-1, Burk 3-10, Oliver 0-2, Ray 0-1), Winthrop 10-26 (Perkins 3-6, Johnson 4-10, Cooks 1-1, B. Broman 1-3, Blake 0-1, A. Broman 1-5). Fouled Out — Whitfield (CU). Rebounds — Winthrop 38 (Cooks 14), Campbell 34 (Eudy 10). Assists — Winthrop 13 (Cooks 5), Campbell 5 (Gensler 2). Total Fouls — Campbell 16, Winthrop 9. Technical — None. A — 5109.
Points in the Paint —Winthrop 26, Campbell 20. Points off Turnovers —Winthrop 15, Campbell 10. Second-Chance Points — Winthrop 12, Campbell 11. Fast Break Points —Winthrop 2, Campbell 0. Bench Points — Winthrop 9, Campbell 3.