BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – 11 was a significant number for two Big South teams as they took the floor.
Winthrop visited Paul Porter Arena Saturday looking for its 11th win in a row over Gardner-Webb. The Runnin’ Bulldogs looked to go 11-0 at home this season.
Despite a sluggish second half in which neither team seemed to gain much traction, Gardner-Webb got 18 points from David Efianayi and held on to a huge first-half advantage it had built, squeaking out a 64-60 victory over Winthrop before an announced crowd of 2,049 on its home deck.
The victory was made all the more memorable by the many Gardner-Webb basketball alumni in town for the school’s Hoopscoming event. Among the luminaries were legendary coach Eddie Holbrook and Naismith Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore.
“I’m proud of our team. They (Winthrop) are a hard group to guard,” said a visibly relieved Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft after the game. “It feels good to beat those guys. They’ve had our number for a long time. I’m proud of our team for our preparation.”
“Obviously, we’ve been losing to these guys, so there was a little extra pump in our step,” added Efianayi. “We were energized for this game.”
The contest started, as with many of the games between these two regional rivals, as a tug-of-war. Neither side led by more than six over the first 13 minutes, before the action dramatically shifted. Gardner-Webb (17-10, 7-5 Big South) unleashed a 19-4 run over a nearly five-minute span as the half wound down, quickly turning a five-point Runnin’ Bulldog advantage into a 19-point lead for the home side. A Charles Falden tip-in near the horn sliced the Gardner-Webb margin to 42-25 at the interval.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs erased the memory of a poor first half when the teams played at Winthrop nearly a month ago, countering that 9-for-30 effort with a 18-for-32 showing in the opening 20 on Saturday. The Gardner-Webb defense proved just as effective, limiting Winthrop to 10-for-36 (27.8 percent) from the field and 3-for-20 (15 percent) from three.
“I just think guys were making the right decisions offensively and knocking down the open shots,” said Craft of his team’s first-stanza performance. “I thought our defense was terrific. I thought our guys were really locked in to what we needed to do to guard Winthrop, and really executed our gameplan.”
Winthrop (17-9, 9-4) charged out of the locker room, putting together a 16-5 run over the first eight minutes of the second half and slicing the Eagle deficit to six. After a three-plus minute period in which neither side found the basket, Gardner-Webb got an Efianayi bucket and a Nate Johnson three on consecutive possessions to extend the lead back to 11.
A Christian Turner three-point play at the 4:14 mark brought to a halt a 6-0 Winthrop burst that created a tenuous mood among the Runnin’ Bulldog faithful. Those three points proved fortuitous, as an 8-3 Winthrop run capped by two Nych Smith free throws left the Gardner-Webb lead dangling at 60-57 with just 13 seconds to play.
“(Christian) just made a huge bucket there when we really needed one,” said Craft of his point guard. “(I’m) just proud of him to have the confidence to just try to take that shot, let alone make it and get the and-one.”
A wild final few seconds erupted, as a Winthrop foul sent Gardner-Webb to the free throw line. The Runnin’ Bulldogs missed the front end of a one-and-one, leaving the Eagles with another possession. Kyle Zunic’s three-point attempt would not fall, and Eric Jamison knocked down two free throws after a Winthrop foul, stretching the lead to five.
Before Gardner-Webb fans could finally exhale, Winthrop had one more remaining salvo.
Smith canned a triple from well beyond the arc with just under a second to play, trimming the Runnin’ Bulldog advantage to two. Efianayi was fouled before Gardner-Webb could bring the ball inbounds, and the redshirt senior dropped both free throws to provide the final margin.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs limited the hot-shooting Eagles to just shy of 32 percent from the field (22-for-69), with 40 of those attempts coming from beyond the arc. Just 10 of those shots connected. Craft conceded that he looked to use his own offense to slow Winthrop’s high-powered unit.
“After a made bucket, you could tell we were walking it up,” stated Craft. “I just think they get you with possessions, and all the threes they take. We wanted to try to shorten the game a little bit, whether that was 10 possessions, or eight possessions…shorten it a little bit.” Winthrop tallied 72 possessions on the day, scoring just .833 points per trip. Gardner-Webb, amazingly, scored on just 11 of 36 second-half possessions (.611 points per possession), connecting on 21.4 percent (6-for-28) of its tries in the final 20.
The win was Gardner-Webb’s 12th in a row at home, dating back to last year’s season-closing victory over UNC Asheville. The Runnin’ Bulldogs have won 23 of their last 25 at Paul Porter Arena.
“(It’s) just the energy, man,” Efianayi said about the energy on his team’s home court. “Everyone comes out, everyone’s cheering. All the sports teams are coming out. It just gives us the extra energy to come out with a ‘W’. We really appreciate all the support.”
Smith paced Winthrop with 15 points. Freshman forward Micheal Anumba added 14, making good on 5-of-10 tries (2-of-4 from three). Guard Adam Pickett turned in his second-straight 10-plus rebound effort, snagging 10 of Winthrop’s 51 caroms.
Efianayi’s 18 led Gardner-Webb and all scorers. Guard Nate Johnson contributed 14.
Both teams resume Big South play Thursday. Winthrop travels to league-leading Radford. Game time from the Dedmon Center is slated for 7:00 (Eastern). Gardner-Webb travels to UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena for a 7:00 tip against the Bulldogs.
GARDNER-WEBB 64, WINTHROP 60
WINTHROP (17-9, 9-4 BIG SOUTH): Ferguson 1-11 0-0 3, Smith 4-13 4-4 15, Anumba 5-10 2-2 14, Falden 3-9 0-0 6, Broman 2-7 0-0 5, Pickett 3-10 1-4 7, Ukaegbu 2-2 0-0 4, Zunic 2-6 0-0 6, Awad 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-69 6-6 60.
GARDNER-WEBB (17-10, 7-5 BIG SOUTH): Laster 4-8 0-0 9, Cornwall 2-6 0-1 4, Perez 2-11 0-2 4, Johnson 5-11 1-2 14, Efianayi 6-15 5-6 18, Jamison 2-5 4-6 8, Jenkins 0-1 0-0 0, Turner 2-2 1-1 5, Miller 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-60 11-18 64.
Halftime — Gardner-Webb 42-25. 3-Point Goals—Winthrop 10-40 (Ferguson 1-6, Smith 3-9, Anumba 2-4, Falden 0-5, Broman 1-6, Pickett 1-4, Zunic 2-5, Awad 0-1), Gardner-Webb 5-18 (Laster 1-2, Cornwall 0-2, Perez 0-2, Johnson 3-7, Efianayi 1-4, Jenkins 0-1). Fouled Out — NA. Rebounds — Winthrop 51 (Pickett 10), Gardner-Webb 37 (Jamison 7). Assists —Winthrop 13 (Broman 4), Gardner-Webb 11 (Perez 5). Total Fouls — Winthrop 14, Gardner-Webb 11. Technical — NA. A —2049.
Points in the Paint —Gardner-Webb 34, Winthrop 20. Points off Turnovers —Gardner-Webb 14, Winthrop 7. Second-Chance Points — Winthrop 16, Gardner-Webb 6. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 7, Winthrop 0. Bench Points — Winthrop 17, Gardner-Webb 15.
CURRENT BIG SOUTH STANDINGS