ASHEVILLE, N.C. – “What a great college basketball game.”
With those words, Radford coach Mike Jones opened his postgame remarks Friday.
Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, Radford will have a chance to play at least one more of those games this season.
The Highlanders survived a prolonged offensive drought, largely due to the effort of its defense, claiming a 61-52 victory over Winthrop in the Big South Conference semifinals at Kimmel Arena Friday evening.
That Radford found itself in position to win the game was quite the surprise, given how the first half closed. Both teams heated up at times, with the third-seeded Eagles striking the first blow. Winthrop (19-12) took a 15-10 lead on a Kyle Zunic layup. From there, Winthrop went cold for a prolonged stretch. Radford (21-12) embarked on a 13-0 run that put the Highlanders up nine, and staggered the defending Big South champs.
Winthrop ramped up the defensive intensity, leading the Highlanders into a stretch that saw them knock down just two of their final 17 tries from the field in the half. Despite those numbers, Jones’ Highlanders took a 37-34 lead to the locker room at the half.
Free throws and forced turnovers kept Radford in the contest while its offense struggled. Radford shot 13 free throws in the opening stanza, versus Winthrop’s two, and enjoyed an 11-1 advantage in points off turnovers.
“Our defensive side fuels our offense,” said guard Carlik Jones after the game.
The Radford struggles from the floor continued to start the second half, as a Travis Fields Jr. triple snapped an eight-minute, 43-second string without a basket for the Highlanders and drew the club to within three at 45-42. Fields and Jones both acknowledged the importance of the bucket after the contest.
“It was huge,” said Jones. “I feel like, after the shot that he hit, more shots started to fall.”
“It was a big shot, but it was a bigger pass from [Jones],” added Fields. “I appreciate his putting the trust in me just to even swing it my way.”
Winthrop created a bit of separation from there, taking a 50-46 lead on a Xavier Cooks jumper with 8:28 remaining. The offensive drought that plagued Radford at the end of the first half seemed to make its way to the Eagles’ side following that jumper, however. That field goal would prove to be Winthrop’s final conversion from the field, as the Highlander defense again clamped down on the Eagles.
“That’s where our main focus is,” said Fields of his team’s defense. “The whole year, it was defense. We rely on that a lot. Tonight, it came up big for us.”
“We had too many empty possessions and got a little bit stagnant there offensively,” added Kelsey. “15 turnovers is too many.”
Winthrop forward Xavier Cooks fouled out with 56 seconds to play, possibly bringing to a close one of the most storied careers by an Eagle player. Cooks reflected on what may be his final collegiate game in his remarks to the media.
“At the end of the day, there’s only one winner. There’s only one champion,” said Cooks. “Starting off, I thought we were the best team this year. We played hard for the majority of the year. I never thought it would end like this, but all good things have gotta come to an end eventually.”
Cooks tied for the lead among Winthrop scorers, finishing one rebound shy of a double-double. The senior star combined with Adam Pickett to score 13 apiece.
Carlik Jones paced three Radford scorers in double figures, finishing with 16. Ed Polite Jr. added 13, while Fields tallied 11.
Radford now moves on to its first Big South championship game since 2009, and Mike Jones reflected after the game on the opportunity in front of his program.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for us to show what great young men we have, what a great institution we have, what great leadership we have in the institution,” said Jones. “Everyone who watches ESPN is gonna see Radford, and there’ll probably be a few hits on the social media sites to see what Radford’s all about … I’m just happy for the opportunity to coach these guys, and I’m happy that they believe in each other, and they’re so connected to get to this point in the season where we have a chance to reach our goals.”
Radford will face off with the winner of Friday night’s late game between Liberty and UNC Asheville. That game will tip at 1:00 (Eastern) Sunday on ESPN.
RADFORD 61, WINTHROP 52
WINTHROP (19-12): Cooks 4-6 3-4 13, Ferguson 3-7 2-4 9, A. Broman 2-7 0-0 6, B. Broman 0-5 0-0 0, Pickett 6-15 0-0 13, Hill 0-0 0-0 0, Ukaegbu 0-1 0-0 0, Zunic 3-5 0-0 8, Awad 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 19-48 5-8 52.
RADFORD (21-12): Polite Jr. 3-11 7-10 13, Phillips 1-1 3-4 5, Jones 5-14 5-6 16, Bradford 2-7 0-0 5, Hicks 0-3 2-2 2, Tanner 1-4 0-0 3, Fields Jr. 3-6 2-2 11, Butts IV 0-1 0-0 0, Holland 2-3 2-2 6. Totals 17-50 21-26 61.
Halftime — Radford 37, Winthrop 34. 3-Point Goals—Winthrop 9-26 (Cooks 2-3, Ferguson 1-1, A. Broman 2-7, B. Broman 0-5, Pickett 1-5, Zunic 2-3, Awad 1-2), Radford 6-21 (Polite Jr. 0-3, Jones 1-3, Bradford 1-5, Hicks 0-2, Tanner 1-3, Fields Jr. 3-4, Butts IV 0-1). Fouled Out — Cooks (WU). Rebounds — Winthrop 35 (Cooks/Ferguson 9), Radford 32 (Polite Jr. 9). Assists —Winthrop 12 (Ferguson/B. Broman 3), Radford 8 (Jones 4). Total Fouls — Winthrop 17, Radford 11. Technical — Cooks (WU). A — NA.
Points in the Paint —Winthrop 18, Radford 18. Points off Turnovers —Radford 17, Winthrop 1. Second-Chance Points — Radford 12, Winthrop 6. Fast Break Points — Radford 2, Winthrop 0. Bench Points — Radford 20, Winthrop 11.
Big South Tournament Schedule
Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 1 – ESPN3
Game 3: #2 Radford 59, #10 Longwood 53
Game 4: #3 Winthrop 72, #6 Gardner-Webb 68
Game 5: #1 UNC Asheville 71, #8 Charleston Southern 66
Game 6: #5 Liberty 73, #4 Campbell 59
Semifinals – Friday, March 2 – ESPN3
Game 7: Semifinals – Radford 61, Winthrop 52
Game 8: Semifinals – UNC Asheville vs. Liberty, 8:00pm
Championship – Sunday, March 4 – ESPN
Game 9: Championship – Radford vs. Game 8 winner, 1:00pm