ROCK HILL, S.C. – Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson said it best.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Radford did that figuratively – and nearly literally – to Big South leader Winthrop Monday night. The Highlanders used a 14-4 run to close the first half and break open a five-point game to lead by as many as 27 points.
Winthrop then counterpunched, unfurling a crazy, 42-17 run, inexplicably leaving the Eagles with a chance to tie the game with 19 seconds to play.
Russell Jones’ runner would not fall, though, and as he crashed to the floor, so too did one of the most miraculous comebacks in Winthrop Coliseum history. The Highlanders left the floor victorious in round two between the teams, however, taking an 81-77 decision before an announced crowd of 2,415 in Winthrop Coliseum.
“It was two totally different games,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said. “The first 25 minutes, they just took it to us. They were better than us in every facet of the game. They were finishing around the rim. They were making threes. I thought they won the toughness game.”
Winthrop (18-8, 12-1 Big South) broke out to an early 7-2 lead before a crazy sequence unfolded. During a stoppage, a shouting match ensued between the teams, leading to Radford coach Mike Jones and Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey needing to be separated while screaming back and forth. Each coach was assessed a technical foul for the dust-up.
Each coach had a differing assessment of the events surrounding the disagreement.
“Our players were jawing before the game. Our players were jawing in the game,” Radford coach Mike Jones recalled. “Then, that spilled over to us. I actually went over to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m gonna keep my guys quiet,’ or whatever, and he got upset, and boom – both of us were going at it. I didn’t say anything to him to spark it. I think j(it was) ust emotions flowing over, with a big game, and players being emotional, as well.”
“What did (Jones) say?,” Kelsey asked when questioned about his account. “I don’t really have anything to say. I was just kind of wondering what his take on it was. I have nothing to say, but I would ask him for his side of the story.”
Roughly three minutes later, Radford’s Travis Fields and Winthrop’s DJ Burns became entangled. Each player was assessed a technical foul. Burns was removed from the game shortly after collecting the technical and did not return to the game.
“Because I decided not to play him,” said Kelsey matter-of-factly when asked why Burns did not return.
Radford (15-9, 10-2) wrested control shortly thereafter, tearing off a 9-0 run. After Winthrop charged back with an 8-2 burst of its own, the Eagles knifed the Highlander margin to three. Radford then quickly ramped a five-point lead to 15 to close the first half, taking a 46-31 advantage to the interval. Fields tallied 15 for the visitors in the opening stanza, drilling 7-of-8 shots from the field.
The Highlanders dropped four shots in a row to start the second half, continuing their streak of three that closed the first period. The hot stretch saw Radford escalate its lead to 56-34 before its first miss of the second 20, and it would balloon as far as 27 points at 62-35.
Then, Winthrop unveiled its second act.
The Eagles hit 8-of-10 shots over a six-minute stretch, gradually cutting the lead by greater than half. Two three-point tries from Winthrop refused to find the net, but the home side unleashed another run in which it knocked down seven more of its next 10 attempts. By the time that seventh shot – and fourth in a row – fell, the Highlander lead had been frayed to a paper-thin margin at 79-77.
“(I just told them to) keep fighting,” said Jones of the message to his team as the run continued to plow through the once-comfortable lead. “One possession at a time. Here’s what we’ve gotta do defensively, (and) here’s what they’re trying to do to us. It was basically, in the moment, trying to have the right strategy to stop them from scoring.
“They caught flame. They were shooting the ball from all over the court, and attacking quick, so it was a lot of stuff. We had to really focus on that part of it. We couldn’t really deal with anything other than, ‘Hey, here’s what they’re doing, and here’s what we’ve gotta do to stop them.’”
The Eagles nearly completed their ascension of the 27-point mountain. The Eagle attempt was tightly contested, however, and Devonnte Holland knocked down two free throws to provide the final margin.
“That last 14 minutes, you’re down 27, and you get a chance to tie the game at the end, that’s hard to do,” Kelsey said. “Our guys responded the right way. It’s all about responding. Life’s about responding – to circumstances, to events, to adversity. It’s like, ‘How do you deal with it?’
“I don’t think we dealt with the situation that happened at the beginning of the game all that well – or, at least, it looks that way because of how the next hour went. We could have packed it in, hung our heads, taken our butt-whipping, and packed up the folder and moved on to Gardner-Webb. The kids didn’t do that.”
Preseason Big South Player of the Year Carlik Jones lived up to the billing for Radford, scoring 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Jones dished out six assists and played 26 minutes, despite playing much of the second half with four fouls. Fields added 19, while Donald Hicks tallied 11. Radford shot 54.5 percent (30-for-55) from the deck.
Hunter Hale led Winthrop and all scorers with 24 points, with 15 of those coming in the second half. Russell Jones scored 13 for the Eagles, with 11 of those hitting the board in the closing 20. Chandler Vaudrin contributed 10, finishing two boards and three assists shy of his second triple-double.
Both teams resume Big South play Thursday night. Radford plays host to Presbyterian in the Dedmon Center. Game time is set for 7:00 (Eastern). Winthrop visits Gardner-Webb’s Paul Porter Arena for a nationally-televised game over ESPNU. Tip time for that contest is also slated for 7:00.