ROCK HILL, S.C. – When Winthrop and UNC Asheville face off on the hardwood, it always feels like a special occasion. Thursday night was no different. ESPNU cameras and a lively crowd provided the “big-time atmosphere” about which Eagles coach Pat Kelsey always speaks.
Kelsey’s Eagles seized the night, getting double figures from five scorers in an 85-58 victory before an announced crowd of 3,347 at the Winthrop Coliseum.
“Sometimes, I guess it’s just your night,” said Kelsey after the game. “I think we fed off the energy of the crowd. I thought the atmosphere was phenomenal. Our students really, really responded to our challenge … I really feel like that was the energy that we fed off to get off to the start that we did. It makes such a difference. It just makes such a difference.”
Winthrop (10-8, 4-3 Big South) started hot, and never cooled off in the first half. The Eagles jumped out to an early 9-2 lead, then quickly stretched the margin to 20-10 on a Xavier Cooks triple. A 13-0 Eagle run moved the lead to 35-14, during which Asheville (11-9, 4-3) used two of its timeouts. The Bulldogs jumped back out with a quick 6-0 burst of their own, but Winthrop bounced back to take a 41-24 lead to the interval. Winthrop converted on 16 of its 33 first-half tries, piling up 10 assists on those conversions. Asheville, conversely, connected on just 10-of-33 shots, including 1-for-11 from beyond the arc.
“I thought Winthrop just took it to us early, from the get-go. I just thought they were a more physical group,” said Asheville coach Nick McDevitt. “I thought, offensively, we got to where we were trying to rush things. We were all trying to make plays, but what it led to was bad offensive possessions … When you’re in Winthrop Coliseum, playing those guys, being down 21 is a tall task to come back from.”
The Eagles kept the offensive pressure on the Bulldogs as the second half began. Ahmad Thomas stuck a jumper on the visitors’ first possession, slicing the Winthrop lead to 15 at 41-26. The home side then stomped the accelerator, going on another 22-9 binge that extended the advantage to 27. The lead continued to swell from there, reaching 33 on a splashed Kyle Zunic triple at the 7:12 mark. Asheville reduced the difference to 27 on several occasions, but could never draw any closer.
“We made 13 threes the other night against Charleston Southern, and then (we) make four tonight,” said McDevitt. “Some of them, I thought, were quality looks. We had a good amount of quality looks that just didn’t go in. When you see that happening, you’ve gotta find a way to get a basket another way, and I thought we just kept kind of pressing. After a couple didn’t go in, the rim starts (shrinking). That’s when it’s time to get to the free throw line. Somebody’s gotta make a play … We didn’t find a way to stop the bleeding, other than attempting contested shots at times and open threes. When those aren’t going, when you’re a scorer, you’ve gotta find a way to get that ball in the basket.”
Thomas recorded a double-double for the Bulldogs, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in 30 minutes of play. Fellow All-Conference performer MaCio Teague worked through some early struggles and finished with 14. Asheville shot 34.8 percent (24-for-69) for the contest, making good on just four of 22 three-point tries (18.2 percent).
Winthrop recorded 18 assists on 27 conversions, turning the ball over just 10 times against Asheville’s highly-regarded “13” (1-3-1) zone press. Eagle guard Kyle Zunic drew much of the ball-handling responsibility against the Bulldog pressure.
“I was very happy (with my ball-handling),” stated Zunic. “Lately, I’ve been turning it over a little bit, so I was trying to concentrate hard on finding people where they were. I just wanted to concentrate on not turning the ball over, and not giving them anything easy. We didn’t give them anything easy. We didn’t want them to have a steal and an easy layup.”
Zunic also offered some key contributions on offense, pouring in 12 points in 21 minutes of action as a reserve. Guard Anders Broman paced the Eagles with 19 points, with Cooks adding his 29th career double-double (15 points, 11 boards). Forward Josh Ferguson narrowly missed a double-double of his own, contributing 13 points and nine rebounds. Guard Adam Pickett continued his hot play of late, scoring 10 in 20 minutes of game action, despite being saddled with foul trouble for much of the contest.
Winthrop forward Jermaine Ukaegbu had arguably his strongest game as an Eagle off the bench, scoring seven points, hauling in eight rebounds and blocking three shots in 17 minutes of play.
“He has a hard role. His minutes kind of fluctuate from game to game,” said Kelsey. “That’s what he’s supposed to be for us, an energy guy, an energy booster. His rebounds per minute right now are really, really high. He’s a high-motor guy. Those hard plays on the ball, those blocks at the rim, those just ignite our offense, and ignite the crowd.”
Winthrop converted 47.4 percent of its tries (27-for-57), including 11-of-26 from three (42.5 percent). Ukaegbu and Cooks helped the Eagles win the rebounding battle, 42-37.
Both teams return to conference play Sunday afternoon. Asheville travels to Lynchburg, Va. to take on Liberty. Tip-off from the Vines Center is scheduled for 2:00 (Eastern). Winthrop faces off with Presbyterian College in the Templeton Center in Clinton, S.C. That game will commence at 4:00.
WINTHROP 85, UNC ASHEVILLE 58
UNC ASHEVILLE (11-9, 4-3 BIG SOUTH): Baehre 1-7 0-0 2, Vannatta 1-6 0-0 2, Miller 4-8 0-0 8, Thomas 9-21 1-4 20, Teague 4-12 5-6 14, Gilmore 2-4 0-0 4, Wnuk 1-4 0-2 2, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Seegars 0-1 0-0 0, Townsend 0-0 0-0 0, Rackley 2-6 0-0 6. Totals 24-69 6-12 58.
WINTHROP (10-8, 4-3): A. Broman 4-7 8-10 19, Cooks 6-14 2-2 15, B. Broman 1-2 1-2 4, Pickett 4-5 0-0 10, Ferguson 6-8 0-0 13, Pupavac 0-1 0-0 0, Blake 0-0 0-0 0, Hill 0-1 0-0 0, Falden 0-1 0-0 0, Ukaegbu 2-3 3-7 7, Zunic 3-8 4-4 12, Awad 1-6 0-0 3, Scerbinskis 0-2 0-0 0, Erps 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 27-57 20-27 85.
Halftime — Winthrop 41-24. 3-Point Goals—Asheville 4-22 (Baehre 0-3, Vannatta 0-1, Miller 0-3, Thomas 1-3, Teague 1-7, Seegars 0-1, Rackley 2-4), Winthrop 11-26 (A. Broman 3-5, Cooks 1-2, B. Broman 1-2, Pickett 2-2, Ferguson 1-1, Hill 0-1, Zunic 2-6, Awad 1-5, Scerbinskis 0-1). Fouled Out — Gilmore (UNCA). Rebounds — Winthrop 42 (Cooks 11), Asheville 37 (Thomas 11). Assists — Winthrop 18 (B. Broman 6), Asheville 7 (Vannatta/Miller/Rackley 2). Total Fouls — Asheville 21, Winthrop 12. Technical — Rackley (UNCA), Cooks (WU), Gilmore (UNCA). A — 3347.
Points in the Paint —Asheville 38, Winthrop 30. Points off Turnovers —Asheville 6, Winthrop 6. Second-Chance Points — Asheville 6, Winthrop 2. Fast Break Points — Asheville 6, Winthrop 0. Bench Points — Winthrop 24, Asheville 12.