ROCK HILL, S.C. – Same song, different chorus.
It seems Big South teams can find a way to get Winthrop’s attention – Gardner-Webb led the Eagles at the half Sunday, creating Winthrop’s first halftime deficit of the year – but the Eagles always find a way to close.
Winthrop fended off a fierce Longwood rally Thursday night, turning away the Lancers, 72-61, to win its 12th game in a row in the 2020-21 campaign and 17th straight overall. This time, the Eagles sank in their talons on defense instead of their high-flying offense.
“We’re fortunate to get a win,” commented Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey after the game. “I was proud of our defense. I think that was, to me, the story of the game.”
The first half was a hard-fought battle in which both sides struggled to consistently hit shots. Winthrop (12-0, 9-0 Big South) built a lead as high as 11, when a short DJ Burns jumper provided the Eagles a 16-5 advantage at the 9:16 mark. The teams traded baskets for several minutes before another prolonged icy stretch at both ends of the floor kept the visitors from knifing into the margin and the homestanding Eagles from creating separation. The Lancers closed within six on a Leslie Nkereuwem bucket at the 2:12 mark, but Winthrop advanced its lead to nine at the interval.
Longwood (3-12, 2-7) continued to stay within shooting distance, despite again enduring several cold stretches in the second half. The Lancer defense played a significant role in the development, clamping the lid shut on Winthrop field goal attempts for a greater than five-minute stretch midway through the second period. The Lancers used the defensive spurt to piece together a 9-0 run, knifing a 14-point deficit to just five.
The visitors gradually worked the lead to a single possession on a Christian Wilson free throw at the 10:44 mark but shooting woes again thwarted Longwood. The Lancers endured a string in which they missed five in a row and six of seven, allowing Winthrop to extend the lead back to double digits. Longwood closed within nine on a Heru Bligen jumper with 5:37 remaining but could work no closer.
“We always try to stay calm. We train for these moments,” stated Anumba about the team’s mindset during the Longwood comeback. “Nobody was worried. Everyone was calm. We just knew if we started getting stops, we would win the game eventually.”
Justin Hill paced the Lancers, contributing 15 points off the bench and knocking down 4-of-8 tries from the field. Hill added six free throws in seven attempts. Juan Munoz added 11, despite being limited to a 2-for-10 effort from the floor by Winthrop’s defensive pair of Mike Anumba and Chase Claxton. The Lancers shot just 33.3 percent (19-for-57) from the floor and 23.5 percent (4-of-17) from distance.
“It’s great guarding the best player and keeping him to 10. It’s great knowing that I did a great job on my assignment,” said Anumba. “Coach (Kelsey) recognizes me and Chase (Claxton) as the best defenders on the team. We take our role with a lot of pride.”
“I thought Mike Anumba and Chase Claxton were sensational defensively,” Kelsey added. “Juan Munoz is a very, very good player, and I think one of the better lead guards in our conference. It’s a handful trying to guard all the pick-and-rolls that he uses. He’s a guy that we really circled on the scouting report, and Chase and Micheal both really accepted that challenge and did a really good job.”
Anumba guided four Eagles in doubles, finishing with 14 points on just three made field goal attempts. Chandler Vaudrin added 13, with DJ Burns and Adonis Arms tallying 10 apiece. Winthrop connected on 47.4 percent (27-for-57) of its tries from the deck but bolstered its effort with a strong 11-for-12 line from the charity stripe in the second half.
The teams will square off in game two of the Big South Conference series Friday night at Winthrop Coliseum. Tip time between the Lancers and Eagles is set for 6:00, with the game streamed on ESPN+.