ROCK HILL, S.C. – Gardner-Webb outscored Winthrop, 62-50, in the second half of a nationally-televised game.
Unfortunately for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, Winthrop outscored them, 47-26, in the first.
Winthrop placed four scorers in double figures, including a career-high 19 points from sophomore Charles Falden, and held on for a frenetic, 97-88 victory before an announced crowd of 2,864 at Winthrop Coliseum Thursday night.
“I think it was a big-time game between two games that are contending for a championship,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “It just felt like a big-time college basketball atmosphere, and I think it was a good show for a national television audience.”
Winthrop (14-6, 6-1 Big South) raced out of the gate, holding Gardner-Webb without a bucket for over seven minutes. The Eagles led 18-2 before Jaheam Cornwall’s conversion, and nearly opened up a 23-4 lead on a second straight opponent. The hot-shooting home side led by as many as 22 in the opening stanza, and despite a small surge by the visitors nearing the horn, a Josh Ferguson triple extended the margin back to 21 at the interval.
As one might imagine, the teams’ coaches had differing assessments of the first half. Winthrop connected on 48.6 percent of its first-half tries (17-for-35), while Gardner-Webb was held to just 30 percent (9-for-30). The Runnin’ Bulldogs managed just two offensive rebounds for the half.
“I thought the first half, offensively, we just started the game really poorly,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “(We were) not finishing plays, forcing up tough drives. Credit their defense for that. (Winthrop coach) Pat (Kelsey) does a good job, and they’re really good, but we’ve gotta play better in the first half.”
“The first half was as good a half as we’ve played all year long,” said Kelsey. “When that ball pops, the defense moves, and you’ve gotta be accountable for every catch and every closeout … The first half, we were getting stops. We really guarded (in) the first half.”
Gardner-Webb (12-8, 2-3) started the second half ablaze, knocking down its first four shots and cutting the Winthrop lead to 15. Kelsey requested a stoppage, after which his team responded with a Micheal Anumba three-pointer. A Falden jumper minutes later again swelled the lead to 22, at which point the Runnin’ Bulldogs were finally able to gain some offensive traction.
The visitors went on a 16-6 burst, slicing that 22-point advantage to 12. Winthrop then went on another prolonged run, extending the lead back to 21. Gardner-Webb again countered, slicing the lead from 21 to nine, and eventually as few as seven points. The Runnin’ Bulldogs’ second-half offensive performance helped facilitate the extension of the game, as Craft’s club shot a sizzling 69.7 percent (23-for-33) in the final stanza. The visitors tried to maximize their remaining possessions by fouling Winthrop earlier than some might anticipate.
“It was still like 10, 12 (points), kind of in that point where, if we just try to guard them, they’re gonna do a good job of making the possession long, and then the game’s gonna be over,” said Craft. “We were just trying to extend the game, hope they would miss some free throws, and maybe we could throw some threes in.”
Despite the finish, Craft expressed happiness with how his team finished the game.
“It gives me hope that we didn’t quit, and we stayed together out there when I think everything was going against us,” said Craft. “We certainly could have folded, and we could have started pointing fingers and blaming each other and blaming the game plan, or blaming whatever, but I thought our guys just tried to stick with it, and they tried to stay together. That gave us a chance to have a good second half, and for that, I’m really proud of our group.”
“In the second half, they really started attacking,” said Kelsey. “I credit Gardner-Webb for continuing to fight and scrap. I knew they weren’t gonna lay down. That’s a very prideful program, and Tim’s a great coach, and they’re very, very good. They kept coming at us right until the very end.”
Redshirt senior guard David Efianayi led Gardner-Webb and all scorers with 26 points, with 19 coming in the second half. Efianayi connected on 10-of-16 shots, including 4-of-9 from three.
“Efianayi is … a nightmare to stop. Even if there’s nothing there, he’s driving,” said Kelsey. “He’s like a gazelle.”
Forward DJ Laster added 16 for Gardner-Webb, while Nate Johnson added 15. Jose Perez tallied a second double-double in a row, scoring 14 points and snatching 10 boards.
Bjorn Broman led Winthrop with 20, but Falden’s career-best received just as much attention after the game.
“My teammates (helped me) first, and the coaching staff believed in me,” said Falden. “My teammates keep supporting me and encouraging me, and they just give me confidence to go do what I do.”
“A big credit goes to a guy like Charles Falden. I’m very, very proud of him,” added Kelsey. “He’s a guy that plays backup minutes for us … but he practices his rear end off every day, and when his name’s called, he’s ready.”
Winthrop guard Adam Pickett matched Falden’s 19, adding 11 rebounds to notch a double-double. Ferguson totaled 11. The Eagles knocked down 15-of-36 three-point tries (41.7 percent), compared to Gardner-Webb’s 10-for-26 (38.5 percent).
Both teams hit the road Saturday, but will remain in the Palmetto State for Big South contests. Winthrop travels to Presbyterian for a 4:00 (Eastern) start in the Templeton Center. Gardner-Webb will face off with Charleston Southern in a 5:30 tip at CSU’s Buc Dome.
WINTHROP 97, GARDNER-WEBB 88
GARDNER-WEBB (12-8, 2-3 BIG SOUTH): Laster 6-14 3-4, 16, Jamison Jr. 3-5 0-0 6, Turner 1-1 3-4 6, Johnson 5-12 2-3 15, Efianayi 10-16 2-4 26, Cornwall 2-4 1-2 5, Jenkins 0-2 0-0 0, Perez 5-9 3-6 14, Dufeal 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-63 14-23 88.
WINTHROP (14-6, 6-1 BIG SOUTH): Ferguson 3-7 2-2 11, Smith 3-10 0-0 6, Anumba 2-4 2-4 7, Broman 3-6 11-13 20, Zunic 3-6 2-4 9, Schumacher 0-0 0-0 0, Falden 8-10 0-0 19, Pickett 7-11 3-5 19, Ukaegbu 0-1 0-0 0, Awad 2-7 0-0 6. Totals 31-62 20-28 97.
Halftime — Winthrop 47-26. 3-Point Goals—Gardner-Webb 10-26 (Laster 1-5, Turner 1-1, Johnson 3-6, Efianayi 4-9, Cornwall 0-2, Jenkins 0-1, Perez 1-2), Winthrop 15-36 (Ferguson 3-5, Smith 0-5, Anumba 1-3, Broman 3-6, Zunic 1-4, Falden 3-5, Pickett 2-2, Awad 2-6). Fouled Out — Johnson (GWU). Rebounds — Winthrop 41 (Pickett 11), Gardner-Webb 30 (Perez 10). Assists — Winthrop 14 (Smith 7), Gardner-Webb 14 (Cornwall 5). Total Fouls — Gardner-Webb 24, Winthrop 18. Technical — NA. A — 2864.
Points in the Paint —Gardner-Webb 34, Winthrop 26. Points off Turnovers —Gardner-Webb 14, Winthrop 13. Second-Chance Points — Gardner-Webb 9, Winthrop 9. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 17, Winthrop 2. Bench Points — Winthrop 44, Gardner-Webb 19.
CURRENT BIG SOUTH STANDINGS