BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – Most court storms come from sheer exhilaration. It was tough to tell if Thursday’s flood came from excitement or relief.
Gardner-Webb forced 20 Winthrop turnovers and shot 50 percent for the game, turning away the league-leading Eagles, 74-70. The win was the second in a row for the Runnin’ Bulldogs over the Eagles on their home deck.
“I’m just really proud of our guys for coming together and preparing well, playing well offensively, and just kind of hanging on, getting enough rebounds and enough stops and just making enough plays to beat a really good Winthrop team here,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft after the game. “It was a total team effort. Everybody was a big part of this deal tonight.”
Gardner-Webb (11-14, 7-6 Big South) led by as many as eight points midway through the first half, before a 6-0 Winthrop burst sliced the advantage to a single possession. The Runnin’ Bulldogs then clamped down on defense, holding the Eagles without a field goal for the final 6:04 of the period. Winthrop (18-9, 12-2) shot just 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) in the opening stanza and 3-for-15 from three, but a 15-1 offensive rebounding advantage kept the Eagles close. Gardner-Webb connected on 52.2 percent (12-for-23) of its first-half tries.
Winthrop used a 10-4 run early in the second half to draw within a point at 41-40. Gardner-Webb turned away the burst, however, getting back-to-back Eric Jamison buckets to return the margin to five. The lead grew as high as nine points on a Jaheam Cornwall triple with 8:22 remaining.
The Eagles were not done yet, however.
Winthrop mounted a charge behind Charles Falden and DJ Burns, slimming the lead – again – to just one point with 4:29 to play. Following the media timeout, Nate Johnson dropped a jumper to extend the lead back to three. The Runnin’ Bulldogs grew the margin back to seven following a Winthrop turnover and two missed baskets, but the Eagles again utilized a 6-0 burst to cut the lead to one following a Hunter Hale trey.
After Eric Jamison hit one of two from the line, Winthrop raced up the floor to try to force a tying bucket, but Gardner-Webb induced the 20th Eagle miscue. Johnson put home two free throws with 5.2 seconds remaining to provide the final margin.
“I knew I felt comfortable going to the line, so I just did what I always do, and thankfully, they went down,” Johnson commented.
Gardner-Webb won the game playing just seven players. The Runnin’ Bulldogs continue to play without Player of the Year candidate Jose Perez, who is taking some time away from the team to tend to personal concerns.
“I just think, in some ways, that (Perez’s loss) was hard, but it also gives guys an understanding that their role and their opportunity is gonna change a little bit, because he did so much,” said Craft. “I just think the guys (have) got great belief and commitment, and I’m proud of them.”
“We never back down from a fight, and we stay ready,” added Cornwall.
Jamison poured in a career-best 23 for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, eclipsing his prior high of 22 set earlier this year at Wofford. Johnson added 19, while snaring seven rebounds and forcing four steals. Cornwall scored 17 and dished out five helpers.
“Coach Craft emphasizes paint touch scoring, so you’re either finishing at the rim, or you’re spraying out for a three,” said Jamison. “I just felt like I had the advantage in the paint this game, and I was just going with it, going with the flow.”
Charles Falden led the Eagles with 13 points while snaring six of Winthrop’s 46 rebounds. Burns added 12 and grabbed seven boards. Winthrop shot 40.3 percent (25-for-62) on the contest, hitting 33.3 percent (9-for-27) from distance.
Winthrop returns to action Saturday afternoon, traveling to Clinton, South Carolina, to take on Presbyterian. Game time in the Templeton Center is set for 4:00 (Eastern). Gardner-Webb will take a week off, then travel to Hampton next Thursday. That game in the Convocation Center is slated to tip at 7:00.