ROCK HILL, S.C. – In a season in which it is in far too short of supply, familiarity seems to have taken up residence in Winthrop Coliseum.
It’s a seemingly common formula – a pesky opponent gives Winthrop a challenge, and, as in all cases but one this season, Winthrop turns away the pesky opponent simply by overpowering them. As the team’s mantra states, “Do What We Do”.
That familiar formula led Winthrop to an 82-61 victory over fifth-seeded Longwood Thursday night, powering the Eagles to back-to-back Big South title game appearances. It also created another familiar scene – Winthrop will play third-seeded Campbell for the title, a rematch of the 2017 contest that Winthrop took down on the same court to provide the first conference title in the Pat Kelsey era in Rock Hill.
“It was not fun to prepare for (Longwood),” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, noting Longwood’s recent hot stretch and his observations of their play. “There were several sleepless nights over the last couple of nights – and there’ll be more of them – but I give them a lot of credit.”
Winthrop (22-1) started incredibly hot, just as it did in Monday’s quarterfinal against High Point. The Eagles sank the first bucket of the game, then countered a Juan Munoz bucket with a 13-0 burst that quickly expanded the home side’s advantage to double digits. The Eagle lead remained as high as 13 for a sizable portion of the half, before a Longwood run induced a Kelsey timeout.
Longwood (12-16) finally sliced the margin to a single possession on a DeShaun Wade jumper at the five-minute mark. Winthrop quickly counterpunched, however, unfurling an 11-0 stretch to close the period. A one-handed Kyle Zunic toss from the paint at the horn capped the surge, affording Winthrop a 44-30 lead at the break.
The drought continued for the visitors from the Commonwealth, as Winthrop slowly extended its advantage to greater than 20 points over the first five minutes of the second period. By the time Leslie Nkereuwem made the first shot on which the Lancers connected at the 12:48 mark – Longwood was 0-for-9 prior – Winthrop was ahead by 24.
“I thought the game changed in the last five minutes of the first half,” Kelsey stated. “We made a few defensive adjustments, but the big thing is that we weren’t playing hard enough. Our energy went up. We just played harder.
“That’s something that’s really nice about a veteran team. You can get in those media timeouts, those huddles, the end of those four-minute wars, and you can be really blunt and honest with them, and they take the feedback and many times, they’re saying it before you say it. That group did an unbelievable job as the catalyst for the rest of the game.”
Winthrop guard Chandler Vaudrin echoed those sentiments.
“I think we just kind of got lazy,” Vaudrin commented. “We were up however many, 10, 13 or something, and we kind of let it slide for a little bit.
“Great teams bounce back. Every team’s gonna make a run. Who can make the longest run – and usually who can make the last run – is usually what it is.”
The Eagles continued to fend off the Lancers’ charges, extending their lead to as many as 31 points. Longwood gradually sliced the margin to 21 but was unable to draw closer. Winthrop shot just 33 percent in the second half, but the outcome was never in doubt in the second half.
“Rough night tonight,” stated Longwood coach Griff Aldrich. “Credit Winthrop – I thought they played with great competitiveness right from the start.
“I was proud of the guys for fighting back … I just don’t think it was our best night.”
Senior Charles Falden paced the Eagles and all scorers, tallying 19 points in 25 minutes on the night. Vaudrin added 16, finishing a rebound and two assists shy of a second triple-double in a row. Kelton Talford offered a significant contribution in reserve, scoring 11 and snaring four boards in 14 minutes of action. Winthrop connected on 45 percent (28-of-62) of its shots.
Juan Munoz led the Lancers with 17 points, knocking down 6-of-10 tries from the deck. Wade added 12 and grabbed five caroms. Longwood shot 42 percent (24-for-57) from the floor on the night, hitting 8-of-18 (44 percent) from distance.
“(Winthrop’s) very good. I think the one thing that stands out to me is their culture,” commented Munoz on his team’s opponent. “They play hard, they play together, and they play for each other. I think that’s the thing that impressed me the most.
“This team is so unified and together that it’s hard to beat them. They flexed their muscles tonight, and hats off to them.”
Winthrop hosts Campbell Sunday for the title, marking the third time in five seasons the Big South title will be awarded on the Eagles’ home floor. The game is scheduled to tip at noon, with coverage over ESPN.