ROCK HILL, S.C. – Following Friday night’s contest in the Winthrop Coliseum, a lot of national attention shifted toward the Winthrop winning streak, sitting at 21 games going back to last season.
The lone group seemingly not paying attention to that streak was the group that authored it.
When the final shot went up and the horn sounded, the team wearing white celebrated, jumping up and down, giving high-fives, and the like. That team, however, was not Winthrop.
UNC Asheville authored a stellar defensive effort Friday, becoming the first team to knock off the homestanding Eagles in the 2020-21 campaign and claiming bragging rights – even if for one night – over its regional rival in a 57-55 victory.
“That’s sports. That how it goes,” stated Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey when recapping the fortunes of his side. “I told (the team), whether you win or lose, we do the exact same thing. It’s what your response is like.
“Obviously, the story that people are gonna talk about, whether it’s media, students, or fans is the disappointment over the end of a prolific winning streak … We’ll respond the right way. You dust yourself off, you pick yourself up, and you go back to work, and we’ll do that. My money’s on our guys handling this the right way and using it as a catalyst to even better things.”
Asheville (10-9, 9-5 Big South) limited Winthrop’s high-powered offense to just 28 percent shooting in the opening twenty. The Bulldogs went to Evan Clayborne in the paint early and often, as the NC Central transfer tallied nine points in the opening half. The grad student also hauled in seven of the 24 Bulldog boards in the period, extending possessions and helping to keep the Eagles on defense.
Winthrop (16-1, 13-1), for its part, endured a string in which it hit just three of 19 shots during the first half. The Eagles were particularly icy from distance, knocking down just 3-of-14 tries from beyond the arc. Still, the home side amazingly trailed by just a point at the interval, owing largely to a 13-2 advantage off turnovers. Winthrop compelled 10 Asheville miscues in the frame, against just two of its own.
The visitors got off to yet another sizzling second-half start, draining five of their first six shots. The Eagles countered the same way Asheville limited them in the first half – on defense. Winthrop coerced a significant number of charges on Bulldog drives, allowing the opportunistic Eagles to chip away at the visitors’ lead. A 13-3 Winthrop run eventually eroded the advantage, allowing the home side to grow the lead to eight points as the final media break approached.
Asheville played off the energy it had displayed throughout the two-game series and drew on it at the perfect time. The Bulldogs drew within five on a Trent Stephney triple, then Charles Falden countered with a jumper to give Winthrop a 54-47 lead at the 3:41 mark.
That bucket would be the last Winthrop would hit on the evening.
Asheville unleashed a 10-0 run on the home side, stemmed only by a Russell Jones free throw with six seconds remaining. The Eagles intentionally missed the second free throw, but the putback attempt achingly circled off the rim. Winthrop had one more look to tie the game, but a free throw attempt would not fall. The Bulldogs then held off a final shot attempt and broke out in a massive celebration following the final horn that continued into the locker room.
“I told our guys that it’s a sign of respect when a team celebrates like that when they beat you. It means you’re a good team,” commented Kelsey. “They deserved to celebrate. It was a well-earned victory.”
“I’m just super excited to get back to practice. It’s life. It’s basketball,” stated Chandler Vaudrin. “It hurts a little bit, but it is what it is. Our heads aren’t down. We’re not that kind of team.
“You could see as they reacted. Every team we play, this is their Super Bowl. This is the game they have to win. They circle it on the schedule … Yeah, it’s tough. I just love these guys. We’re gonna be okay.”
Stephney paced the Bulldogs’ offensive effort, scoring 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting. L.J. Thorpe joined Stephney in double figures, tallying 12 on 3-for-6 from the field and 6-for-7 from the line. The Bulldogs connected on 47.6 percent (20-for-42) from the field, including a 10-for-17 (58.8 percent) effort in the second half.
Vaudrin was the lone double-figure scorer for the Eagles, collecting 14 points on a 6-for-15 night from the field. Winthrop made 31.9 percent (22-of-69) of its shots, seeing just 3-of-20 three-point tries (15 percent) find the net. The Eagles missed all six second-half tries from distance.
Asheville returns to play next Thursday and Friday, hosting Campbell in a Big South series inside Kimmel Arena. Thursday’s game will tip at 7:00 (Eastern) and air over ESPNU as the Big South ESPNU wildcard game. The Friday tilt is slated to tip at 5:00.
Winthrop will have a week off before returning to the deck for a two-game series at second-place Radford on February 11 and 12. Both games in the Dedmon Center are slated for 6:00 tips and carriage on ESPN+.