BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey is a pretty demonstrative guy, always ready to sing the praises of his players.
He may have pulled off the understatement of the year Thursday night, though.
“I felt like that’s as good as I’ve ever seen him play,” said Kelsey of all-conference forward Xavier Cooks. “That second half, he just took the game over.”
Cooks notched a career-high 36 points to go with his 16 boards – 23 of those points and 12 of the rebounds in the second half, to go with the six blocks he notched for the game – in a 90-71 victory at Gardner-Webb that pulled the Eagles level with UNC Asheville atop the Big South with three regular-season games remaining. Liberty defeated Asheville, 82-69, in overtime earlier Thursday to create the tie.
“He had an unbelievable night. He’s a great player,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft of Cooks. “From what I’ve seen of him live and watching him on film, some of the things he can do are virtually unguardable.”
Before Cooks’ epic closing 20 minutes unfolded, the announced crowd of 1,252 was treated to a frenetic first half that saw the home side drain a blistering 53.3 percent (16-for-30) of its tries from the floor. After an early back-and-forth tussle between the clubs, Gardner-Webb (12-16, 7-8 Big South) stretched its lead to seven at 21-14 following a David Efianayi jumper. Winthrop (17-9, 11-4) then turned the tables on the Runnin’ Bulldogs, unleashing a 13-0 spurt that put the visitors ahead by six with 7:55 remaining in the period. The Runnin’ Bulldogs sliced the lead to 27-26 after a 5-0 run, and eventually drew to within five at 44-39 at the interval.
Both teams battled fouls in the first half, with Cooks limited to just 14 minutes – despite 13 points – after accumulating two fouls. Gardner-Webb’s predicament was slightly more perilous, with point guards Christian Turner and Jaheam Cornwall tallying three fouls apiece in the period, while forwards Patrick Zeck and Eric Jamison collected two apiece. Winthrop shot 17 free throws in the half, compared to Gardner-Webb’s five.
“They are attacking offensively the entire game,” said Craft of Winthrop’s fast-paced offense. “They’re attacking in transition, and then in half-court, it’s move, move, move the ball, pass the ball, attack, attack, attack. A lot of times, it’s gonna draw fouls when you do that.”
The Eagles stretched their lead to eight on two separate occasions early in the second half, before a 6-0 Gardner-Webb burst knifed the lead to two. As was the case for the Runnin’ Bulldogs on the road Saturday against Liberty, though, Gardner-Webb managed to work the lead to one possession, but could never manage the score that completed the comeback. Winthrop’s lead quickly ballooned to 13, with Cooks scoring 12 points in a span of roughly five-and-a-half-minutes. Gardner-Webb cut the advantage to 11 on a Jamison bucket, but a 5-0 burst punctuated by a Cooks dunk served to put away the contest.
As effective as Winthrop’s offense was on the night, its defense may have been equally worthy of credit.
After a hot first half, Winthrop clamped down on the Runnin’ Bulldogs in the closing stanza, limiting the home club to just 32.4 percent from the floor. Efianayi and Liam O’Reilly accounted for 20 of the 32 second-half points tallied by the ‘Dogs, despite connecting on just 6-of-18 tries from the floor. Gardner-Webb connected on just 2-of-13 three-point tries in the second half, as Winthrop’s defense extended to close out on the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ perimeter shooters.
“We talked about that [the defense] at halftime,” said Kelsey. “Our deflection totals were low, and they were shooting a really high percentage. Credit them. I thought they took the fight to us down at that end. We were hoping they’d miss. I felt like, in the second half, we upped our defensive intensity, played harder, and lo and behold, that usually turns into more productive defense for us, when we’re playing with great activity.”
Cooks’ 36 paced the Eagles and all scorers, giving his club its 10th win in 11 games. Three other Eagles finished in double digits, with Josh Ferguson tallying 19 (“I think he’s become a premier player in our league, and I think he’s only gonna continue to get better,” said Kelsey of the sophomore forward), along with four boards. Guard Anders Broman scored 15 and tallied four assists, with Adam Pickett finishing with his first career double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds). Winthrop flipped the script in the final period, shooting 53.3 percent in the second half to counter Gardner-Webb’s first-half effort.
Three Runnin’ Bulldogs finished in double figures. O’Reilly led Gardner-Webb with 24 on 9-for-18 shooting. Efianayi added 20 and five assists. Forward D.J. Laster finished with 14.
Both teams return to Big South play Sunday. Winthrop hosts Longwood on a day it has dubbed First Responders Appreciation Day. That game is slated for a 2:00 (Eastern) start. Gardner-Webb travels to High Point. That game will also jump at 2:00.
WINTHROP 90, GARDNER-WEBB 71
WINTHROP (17-9, 11-4 BIG SOUTH): Cooks 14-23 4-9 36, Ferguson 5-9 9-11 19, A. Broman 4-7 4-5 15, B. Broman 0-4 2-2 2, Pickett 3-7 6-7 13, Pupavac 1-1 0-0 2, Blake 0-0 0-0 0, Hill 0-0 0-0, Falden 0-2 0-0 0, Zunic 0-2 0-0 0, Awad 1-2 0-0 3, Scerbinskis 0-3 0-0 0, Poole 0-0 0-0 0, Erps 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-60 25-34 90.
GARDNER-WEBB (12-16, 7-8): Zeck 0-1 0-0 0, Laster 6-14 1-4 14, Turner 1-3 0-0 2, O’Reilly 9-18 4-4 24, Efianayi 7-16 4-4 20, Cornwall 0-3 0-0 0, Jamison 3-6 3-3 9, Jenkins 1-2 0-0 2, Niangane 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-64 12-15 71.
Halftime — Winthrop 44-39. 3-Point Goals—Winthrop 9-26 (Cooks 4-8, A. Broman 3-6, B. Broman 0-3, Pickett 1-3, Zunic 0-1, Awad 1-2, Scerbinskis 0-3), Gardner-Webb 5-22 (Laster 1-2, Turner 0-1, O’Reilly 2-8, Efianayi 2-7, Cornwall 0-3, Jenkins 0-1). Fouled Out — A. Broman (WU), Cornwall (GWU), Jamison (GWU). Rebounds —Winthrop 46 (Cooks 16), Gardner-Webb 31 (Jamison/Niangane 6). Assists — Winthrop 16 (A. Broman 4), Gardner-Webb 14 (Efianayi 5). Total Fouls —Gardner-Webb 26, Winthrop 17. Technical — NA. A — 1252.
Points in the Paint —Winthrop 36, Gardner-Webb 32. Points off Turnovers —Gardner-Webb 17, Winthrop 14. Second-Chance Points — Gardner-Webb 10, Winthrop 9. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 6, Winthrop 2. Bench Points — Gardner-Webb 11, Winthrop 5.