ROCK HILL, S.C. – Last season, Winthrop and Gardner-Webb met on the Winthrop Coliseum court in a battle for the ages, with the homestanding Eagles taking an overtime, tournament semifinal victory that propelled them to a league title. If the same Winthrop team that took the floor Monday shows up the rest of the year, the Eagles may be on the verge of dancing yet again come March.
Winthrop placed five scorers in double figures, including a double-double from senior forward Xavier Cooks, in a decisive, 90-67 victory over Gardner-Webb in front of an announced crowd of 996 at the Winthrop Coliseum.
“Our guys answered the bell. They answered the challenge. I was proud of our effort,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “If we defend the way we defended tonight and rebound like that (Winthrop enjoyed a 44-30 rebounding advantage) consistently, we’ve got a chance to be a really good team.”
The pace of the game was rather frenetic early, as Winthrop held a 10-9 lead at the first media break, then extended the lead to 15-9 at the next stoppage. Gardner-Webb (9-10, 4-2 Big South) pulled back to within two on a David Efianayi jumper, then got a banked-in three from Justin Jenkins to slice Winthrop’s lead to 31-30 at the 4:18 mark of the first half. Winthrop (9-8, 3-3) went on a 7-0 burst from that point, holding the Runnin’ Bulldogs scoreless over the balance of the period to take a 38-30 lead to the interval. Gardner-Webb found itself challenged by fouls (10 total, with four key players recording two or more in the half) and missed shots in the period. The Runnin’ Bulldogs hit just 32 percent (12-for-38) of their first-half tries.
Both clubs came out of the locker room firing, with Gardner-Webb cutting the margin to as few as six on two occasions. The homestanding Eagles knocked down seven of their first eight shots of the half, with a Bjorn Broman corner three scorching the net midway through the streak and triggering a 30-second timeout from Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. Winthrop posted an 18-6 spurt to start the stanza, a barrage that staggered the visitors and left them playing catch-up the remainder of the night.
“I just thought we didn’t have any answers to guard Winthrop there in that second half. They were terrific,” said Craft. “Once we got down 15-plus, whatever it was, we kind of had to start scrambling. […] I thought they were really hard to guard, they made shots, and they’ve got a lot of weapons out there. Tonight, they were clicking on all cylinders, and we didn’t have a lot of answers to guard them.”
Winthrop forward Josh Ferguson confirmed his team’s focus on putting away the Runnin’ Bulldogs early in that second half.
“The main focus was effort, because effort gets stops on defense,“ said Ferguson after the game. “If we stopped them from scoring, we were going to score eventually. We’ve got shooters, we’ve got play in the post and can score from anywhere. From a defensive standpoint, rebounding and getting in transition (were the keys).”
Winthrop outrebounded Gardner-Webb, 44-30, a feat which impressed Kelsey after seeing Craft’s side outrebound Radford, 42-33, on Friday night.
“That’s good,” said Kelsey. “Gardner-Webb and Radford, those are two tough, at-your-teeth, beat-you-up type [..] they’re tough. You know when you play one of Tim’s teams, you better bring it, because they’re gonna bring it. We just made that a big point of emphasis for our guys, that if we get stops and then we finish possessions with rebounds, it allows us to do what we do best, and that’s to get out in transition and play.”
All-Conference performer David Efianayi paced Gardner-Webb and all scorers with 21 points on 8-for-19 from the field, keeping his club in the game with a series of drives to the tin that served to puncture Winthrop’s air-tight Pack Line defense. “A lot of what we do is to try to get David in the paint. He’s pretty good with that,” said Craft. “I did think they did a good job collapsing on our drives, contesting at the rim.” The Runnin’ Bulldogs converted just 11-of-22 layups, a sign of the rim protection with which Craft credited Ferguson and Cooks. Forward D.J. Laster contributed 13 off the bench, with guard Liam O’Reilly adding 12 and reserve guard Jamaal Robateau scoring 10.
“It’s great to see it (Robateau’s effort),” said Craft. “He’s looked pretty good in practice, and I thought he did well tonight. He was efficient.”
Three Eagles finished with 17 apiece. Cooks recorded 17 points and 14 rebounds, finishing two assists shy of his second triple-double of the season. Junior guard Adam Pickett continued his hot ways of late, scoring 17 on 6-of-11 shooting and drawing praise from Kelsey for notching four assists versus just one turnover. Ferguson also poured in 17, along with hauling in six boards in 30 minutes. Bjorn Broman totaled 11, with reserve guard Charles Falden converting all four attempts from the field to finish with 10 points.
Both sides continue conference play Thursday evening. Gardner-Webb hosts Presbyterian College in a 7:00 (Eastern) tip from Paul Porter Arena. Winthrop stays at home for a 9:00 tip with rival UNC Asheville. That game will be shown over ESPNU as part of that network’s Big South television package.
WINTHROP 90, GARDNER-WEBB 67
GARDNER-WEBB (9-10, 4-2 BIG SOUTH): Turner 1-5 2-4 4, O’Reilly 5-15 0-0 12, Efianayi 8-19 3-4 21, Zeck 1-4 0-0 2, Niangane 0-2 0-0 0, Robateau 4-7 0-0 10, Jamison 1-3 0-0 2, Jenkins 1-1 0-0 3, Laster 6-14 1-2 13. Totals 27-70 6-10 67.
WINTHROP (9-8, 3-3): A. Broman 2-8 2-2 8, Cooks 7-13 3-6 17, B. Broman 4-9 0-0 11, Pickett 6-11 2-2 17, Ferguson 6-8 5-6 17, Pupavac 0-0 0-0 0, Blake 1-2 0-0 2, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, Falden 4-4 0-0 10, Ukaegbu 1-1 0-2 2, Zunic 0-2 0-0 0, Awad 2-4 0-0 6, Scerbinskis 0-0 0-0 0, Erps 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 33-62 12-18 90.
Halftime — Winthrop 38-30. 3-Point Goals—Gardner-Webb 7-20 (O’Reilly 2-5, Efianayi 2-6, Zeck 0-1, Robateau 2-4, Jenkins 1-1, Laster 0-3), Winthrop 12-33 (A. Broman 2-8, Cooks 0-3, B. Broman 3-8, Pickett 3-5, Blake 0-1, Falden 2-2, Zunic 0-2, Awad 2-4). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Winthrop 44 (Cooks 14), Gardner-Webb 30 (O’Reilly 5). Assists — Winthrop 22 (Cooks 8), Gardner-Webb 11 (O’Reilly/Robateau 3). Total Fouls — Gardner-Webb 15, Winthrop 12. Technical — NA. A — 996.
Points in the Paint —Winthrop 40, Gardner-Webb 36. Points off Turnovers —Winthrop 13, Gardner-Webb 11. Second-Chance Points — Winthrop 21, Gardner-Webb 4. Fast Break Points — Winthrop 4, Gardner-Webb 0. Bench Points — Gardner-Webb 28, Winthrop 20.