The Winthrop men’s basketball team set a new tournament record, going 21 of 21, and pulled away in the final seven minutes of the game to defeat Liberty 77-65 in the first round of the 2014 Big South Conference Championship Wednesday afternoon at the HTC Center.
The victory sends Winthrop (18-12) into Friday’s quarterfinal game against Northern Division champion High Point at 12 noon.
Winthrop’s balanced scoring attack and perfect free throw performance was too much for Liberty (11-21) to overcome. Four Eagles reached double figures as Keon Johnson led with 15 while a trio of players-Joab Jerome, Keon Moore and Andre Smith-finished with 14 each. Liberty had the game’s high scorer as Andrew Smith scored 17 while Joe Retic added 15.
As it has done in several games over the course of the season, Winthrop fell behind early by double digits, but they recovered this time to go stem the tide and battled back to overcome Liberty’s early 17-5 lead and outscored the Flames 30-12 over the final 14 minutes of the first half following a called timeout by head coach Pat Kelsey.
“Credit Liberty for the way they opened the game,” said Kelsey. “They were executing, they were making shots, but we pride ourselves our defense. It is a great pillar foundation of our program. They were scoring too easy, so we told our guys to get locked in and we started stringing together stops.”
The response to the timeout was almost immediate as the defense turned the heat up a notch and the offense clicked into gear. The Flames cooled off after their hot start and made just 5 of their final 16 shots of the first half while Winthrop closed out the period by connecting on 14 of 24 field goals.
After closing the first half in a flourish, Winthrop built the lead to nine in the opening seconds of the final period when Andre Smith drilled a three from the right wing to make it a 38-29 game, but the Flames refused to go away as they scored eight straight to cut the Winthrop advantage to two points. The Eagles went back up by eight after converting six straight free throws to make it 44-36 with 14:48 left in the game.
Liberty then outscored the Eagles 11-3 to knot the score at 47 all on a drive to the bucket by Smith. The score remained tied at 51-51 at the under eight timeout after James Bourne and Moore scored for Winthrop and Smith and Retic had baskets for Liberty. But following the media timeout, Winthrop scored eight unanswered points to build a 59-51 cushion and the Flames ran out of gas. Keon Johnson’s back-to-back threes were the back breakers for the Eagles during that 8-0 run. Winthrop closed the game by scoring its last eight points from the line as Liberty was forced to foul.
The Flames led 17-5 as they connected on seven of their first 12 shots and took advantage of five Winthrop turnovers. The Eagles cut the deficit to three points at 19-15 with 9:27 left in the first half after Moore connected on a running bank shot, then after John Caleb Sanders hit converted four free throws on consecutive trips down the court, Moore followed that with a 3-pointer to get the Eagles to within three points at 21-18. Tevin Prescott then scored on a put back to make it 21-20. Then with two seconds left on the shot clock, Winthrop claimed its first lead of the game when Brandon Vega scored on an inbounds play under the Eagles own basket to make it 22-21 with 6:22 left.
Winthrop stretched the lead to six at the break when Keon Johnson connected on an 18-footer just before the buzzer to give the Eagles their largest lead of the half at 35-29.
Winthrop finished the game shooting 46 percent (24-52) while Liberty shot 41 percent (24-58). The Eagles were 8 for 22 from behind arc (36 pct.) compared to 5 of 13 for the Flames (38.5 pct.). Winthrop also won the rebound battle 33-29 over the taller Flames squad. Moore led the Eagles with eight rebounds.
The Eagles will take on top seed High Point at 12:00 p.m. on Friday. You can hear the game on WRHI FM 94.3/AM 1340/WRHI.com starting at 11:30 a.m. with the countdown to tip-off.