ROCK HILL, S.C. – 364 days.
Winthrop waited nearly a full year to realize its dream. The Eagles walked off the floor last year following a championship game win over Hampton, a trophy in hand and banner being printed, ready to head to the Big Dance. Days later, that dream was dashed, as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.
In 2021, however, nothing proved capable of denying the Eagles a spot on a chartered plane – not COVID, not a regular-season loss to UNC Asheville, and not Sunday’s Big South championship game.
Winthrop got a dominant game from center DJ Burns and rode a nearly-80 percent second-half shooting percentage to its third Big South title in five seasons with an 80-53 victory over third-seeded Campbell Sunday afternoon at Winthrop Coliseum.
“This is all God,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “It’s not all God that we won, because God loves Campbell and Kevin just as much as he loves our guys. (It’s) just a blessing that it is to coach these young men who are special. It’s the most special collective group that I’ve ever been around.
“They’re so committed to each other and so resilient. Throughout the course of a year and the disappointment of not being able to go to the NCAA tournament last year … I’m just so blessed. I give praise to God, first and foremost.”
The first half resembled the two prior meetings between the Camels and Eagles. Campbell’s Princeton-inspired offense and fierce defense allowed the third-seeded Camels to keep the game in check early. Winthrop stretched its lead as high as eight points on multiple occasions, but Campbell (17-10) countered every Eagle run. Joshua Lusane sank a bucket at the 1:23 mark to knife the margin to a perilous two points.
That’s when Burns took over.
The redshirt sophomore hometown hero knocked down back-to-back buckets to close the period, including a crazy floating try just before the horn that afforded his side a six-point lead at the interval. Burns tallied 14 points in the opening stanza, missing just once on eight tries from the field as the Camels struggled to contain the nimble big man.
“DJ Burns was sensational. He’s such a gamer,” Kelsey said. “The other six days out of the week, sometimes he’ll drive me nuts a little bit. When those lights come on, man, on the big stage, he seems to be always ready.”
Winthrop (23-1) unfurled a sizzling second-half start, knocking down its first eight tries from the deck. A Burns dunk punctuated the run, enabling the Eagles to double their halftime advantage and forcing a Campbell stoppage. The respite offered little relief, as the top-seeded Eagles took charge. The lead quickly shot to 25 on the strength of a 12-0 run out of the break, and Campbell never again challenged.
“We were picked tenth in this league – wrongly. This team is so darn together, and really, really played good basketball,” said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan after the game. “I’m so proud to be the coach of our team. We had something really magical going here, and if we hadn’t played probably the best team the Big South has ever had, we probably could have kept this thing going for one more game and played in the NCAA tournament.”
Burns poured in 22 for the Eagles, dropping 11-of-12 tries from the field in just 21 minutes of game action. His play drew specific praise from Vaudrin.
“DJ’s 100 percent, undoubtedly, the best big I’ve ever played with,” Vaudrin said. “Just his skill as someone that’s that big, his footwork, his ability to distribute his weight around, to spin so hard, yet be on so good of balance … It’s very hard to do. I’ve never seen it like that.
“I think when DJ gets going on offense, he’s unstoppable. We’re supposed to push the ball on offensive rebounds and stuff, but sometimes I’ll even get yelled at, because I just want to slow it down and dribble over and throw it in to him and just watch him work. It’s so beautiful. At such a big size, his game’s just so nice and so smooth. He’s just somebody that, when we don’t have offense or shots aren’t falling, we can just throw it in to him for five-minute stretches.”
Burns spoke to the excitement of the day and the motivation of his team.
“It just feels amazing,” said Burns of the emotions of the day. “(Going back to the tournament) is all we talked about. Anything standing in our way, we’re like, ‘We’re gonna attack this head-on, no matter what it is … We’ve gotta push through this, because this is what we’re working towards.’ It’s really exciting to see it pay off.”
Senior guard Kyle Zunic also missed just once in the contest, scoring 13 points on 5-of-6 from the deck (3-of-4 from distance). Winthrop shot 79.2 percent (19-for-24) in the second half to close out the convincing victory. Guard Chandler Vaudrin scored just eight points on the contest but snared 10 boards and dished six assists en route to the tournament MVP award.
Jordan Whitfield paced Campbell, scoring 18 points on 8-for-17 shooting. Guard Ricky Clemons added 10, hitting 3-of-5 tries from the field and providing a solid defensive presence for the Camels throughout the game.
Winthrop now awaits its opponent in the NCAA tournament, which will be entirely contested in the Indianapolis area.