CONWAY, SC – Freshman guard Keon Johnson scored 16 points, including back-to-back baskets in the final two minutes that lifted Winthrop to a thrilling 80-79 win on Saturday over UNC Asheville in the semifinals of the Big South Men’s Basketball Championship at the HTC Center.
With the victory the Eagles recorded their 20th win for the first time since the 2007-08 season as they improve to 20-12 and advance to their 12th Big South title game, extending their League record. The victory also marks the third-straight year that a team has reached the Championship final from the first round. UNC Asheville drops to 17-15. Winthrop will now play at 12 noon on Sunday against the winner of the Coastal Carolina vs. VMI game. The championship game will be aired live on ESPN2.
In a game of offensive runs, the game came down to one huge defensive stop by the Eagles in the final 14 seconds that preserved the win. Johnson put Winthrop up 78-77 on a floater in the lane with 1:48 left in the game and then gave the Eagles a three-point cushion at 80-77 when he scored on a drive to the rim with 1:03 remaining, setting up a frantic finish.
Asheville’s D.J. Cunningham converted a pair of free throws to make it a one-point game, and then made a defensive stop with 31 seconds left on a layup attempt by Johnson. The Bulldogs called a quick time out to set up the final play. After running the clock down to under 10 seconds, Andrew Rowsey drove baseline, but his reverse layup hit the bottom of the backboard. Jaron Lane grabbed the rebound, but his follow hit off the front rim to set up a wild scramble for the loose ball. A jump ball was whistled as Larry Brown and Corey Littlejohn went to the floor, but just two-tenths of a second remained meaning the only hope Asheville had of getting off a shot was to tip the inbounds pass. Brown swatted the pass out of bounds to seal the win for the Eagles and sends them into the championship game for the first time since 2010 and the 10th time in the past 15 years.
“What do you say after a 40-minute college basketball game like that? First thing we do is to praise the opponent. Asheville was fantastic. Nick (McDevitt)’s done a great job with that team,” said Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey. “Like we always do, we give glory and praise to the man upstairs, and thank God for a chance to move on and play another day.”
Keon Moore was the Eagles’ top scorer with 20 points and Joab Jerome joined Johnson with 16. Rowsey finished with 23 points while Lane had 21. Cunningham contributed 21 points and 11 rebounds. It was the first time a team had three players score 20 points in a Big South Semifinal contest.
Winthrop used a 9-point run midway through the first half to pull in front, 29-22, and the two teams traded baskets until the break, where the Eagles held a 48-42 advantage. Moore fueled the Eagles with 14 points in the period.
UNC Asheville scored six consecutive points to start the second half and the battle was on. There were six ties in the second half and Asheville fought back from eight points behind to take a 77-75 lead before the 5-7 Johnson took control for Winthrop.
Winthrop, which has now won five consecutive games, shot 58 percent from the field (29-50). It was also the second consecutive Big South Championship game where the Eagles won by two points or less. Winthrop beat High Point in a first-round game, 62-60 on a last second three-pointer by Andre Smith.
“It came down to that last possession when we had to get a defensive stop. Larry (Brown) got a huge deflection there, and that kind of defense is what we pride ourselves on. That’s Winthrop basketball,” said the Eagles’ coach. “It means a lot (to reach the Big South final). There’s an expectation of excellence in our program. We practice every day under a bunch of NCAA Tournament banners that stare at you. We understand that it’s our responsibility to work hard every day to get back to the tournament. Our goal when we started practice back on September 30th was to get to the NCAA Tournament and now we are one win away from reaching that goal,” said Kelsey.
Hear the game live on WRHI FM 94.3/AM 1340/WRHI.com starting at 11:30a with the pre-game show.