ROCK HILL, S.C. – Every time Winthrop and Gardner-Webb square off, it just feels a little more special. The regional rivals have a history of great games, and both coaches have a great deal of mutual respect.

Despite being somewhat hastily scheduled due to COVID-19 pauses affecting other league clubs, Saturday’s first game of a weekend Big South series did not disappoint.

Winthrop battled through occasional shooting woes and kept its undefeated string alive, claiming its second win in a row over the Runnin’ Bulldogs, 75-65, at Winthrop Coliseum.

“I was proud of our guys’ defense tonight on a day when we weren’t our best offensively, and that’s a credit to Gardner-Webb and the way they defended us,” commented Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey after the game. “We still found a way to win by 10, and I think a big part of it was our defense.”

The teams traded 6-0 runs in the early going, each the result of back-to-back triples. Adonis Arms splashed two for Winthrop to provide the first six points of the contest, while connections from Jaheam Cornwall and Jamaine Mann on successive trips provided Gardner-Webb a 9-6 advantage. The sides battled through dueling icy stretches in which they both went 3-for-10 from the floor, locking each other down on the defensive end.

“They try to make the floor sticky to make our drives tough,” said Kelsey of the Runnin’ Bulldog defense. “I think, at times, we added degree of difficulty to our finishes, whether it was to kick the ball out or try not to make the layup too difficult.”

Arms helped to melt the ice for the Eagles, scoring five straight to help extend the lead as far as nine, before an 8-0 run by the Runnin’ Bulldogs brought the visitors within a point. The Eagles countered with a 9-0 burst of their own just as quickly, though, with two Mke Anumba threes sandwiching a Josh Corbin trey to move the Winthrop lead to double digits. Winthrop took a 35-24 lead to the interval off the strength of the run.

Gardner-Webb (3-7, 2-3 Big South) answered an early Winthrop charge to start the second half with an 8-0 run of its own, bringing the Eagle margin within two possessions at 38-32.  Winthrop (10-0, 7-0) again opened it up for Winthrop, first draining three free throws after being fouled beyond the arc, then canning a wing three to push the lead to 14 and induce a timeout from Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs continued to keep the game within reach, gradually slicing the deficit to just five points with 43 seconds to play. Winthrop held the visitors at bay from there, never allowing Gardner-Webb to advance any closer while finalizing the result at the free throw line.

“In the second half, we were trying to make things too difficult,” added Kelsey. “13 turnovers in the second half is far, far, far too many.”

Freshman Jordan Sears poured in a career-high 18 points for Gardner-Webb to pace all scorers. Sears connected on 7-of-11 shots, knocking down three triples on five attempts. Cornwall added 17 for the visiting side. Gardner-Webb shot 34.9 percent (22-for-63) from the deck, despite a second-half effort that placed the Runnin’ Bulldogs just shy of 39 percent.

Arms led Winthrop with 17, hitting 5-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 from distance. The redshirt senior also snared five boards, one of seven Eagles to grab five or more. Chandler Vaudrin tallied 12, with Anumba totaling 10. The Eagles shot 34.4 percent both from the field and from distance but hauled in 12 of their misses to extend possessions. Winthrop also hit 20-of-25 from the line.

“I thought Adonis had a great day, and his numbers reflect it,” Kelsey said. “He was more accountable and trustworthy defensively. I thought he provided great leadership on the bench today, too.”

The sides resume battle tomorrow afternoon at 1:00 in the second half of the Big South Conference series. Tip time is slated for 1:00, with the game being streamed on ESPN+.