(Rock Hill, S.C.) — The Winthrop University men’s basketball team has experienced great success this season, but not without adversity.
The Eagles, who earned a share of the Big South regular season title after beating High Point Feb. 29, experienced several ups and downs on their way to earning the two-seed in the conference tournament.
Winthrop began its season on a four-game road trip, returning to Rock Hill with a 2-2 record. However, the stretch was highlighted by a victory over the No. 18 ranked Saint Mary’s Gaels, which drew national attention.
“It was a signature win for our program and for our athletic department,” said head coach Pat Kelsey. “Obviously, when you beat a ranked team on their home floor, it’s sort of national news in terms of college basketball.”
Kelsey appeared on the Palmetto Report podcast to discuss the season and upcoming conference tournament.
However, the early signature win did not spark a win streak. After upsetting the Gaels on Nov. 11, Winthrop went winless against Division I opponents for over a month, dropping close games at home to Tennessee Tech and Coastal Carolina and failing to hold up against Furman and TCU.
Amidst these losses, the Eagles found themselves playing on one of college basketball’s biggest stages, taking on Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I thought it was really good,” Kelsey said. “I thought we competed, played very well (and) made it a competitive game down the stretch. (We just) came up a little bit short.”
The Eagles lost 83-70, but recorded more offensive rebounds and fewer turnovers than the Blue Devils. It was a solid performance for a struggling team against one of college basketball’s most successful programs.
Winthrop got things back on track with wins in its final two non-conference contests and the Eagles used those victories as momentum moving into conference play.
With a 3-0 record against Big South teams, Winthrop hosted Gardner-Webb in a game that would see the Eagles beat the Runnin’ Bulldogs in triple overtime, after sinking game-tying threes at the end of the first and second overtime periods.
“Sometimes the basketball gods are with you and sometimes they’re against you,” Kelsey said. “I think over the course of a season…those type of games sort of even out.
“You could go back to some of the unbelievable shots that East Tennessee beat us with on their home floor. You could go to the Fresno State game — a kid threw in a 32-footer that was hotly contested to put us on the losing end of that game,” he said.
Kelsey said the triple overtime win showed the resiliency of Winthrop’s team, which he said has lasted throughout the season.
Despite several slow first-half starts, the Eagles continuously took care of business down the stretch, reaching 14 wins in a row and a 12-0 conference record.
“Amazing,” said sophomore guard Micheal Anumba, to describe the win streak. “Going through something so special with my brothers was an unforgettable experience.”
However, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
Winthrop suffered its first conference loss to Radford and that snowballed into a rough stretch of games.
The Eagles dropped their next match to Gardner-Webb and after a one-point win over Presbyterian, lost again to Hampton.
“I feel like here recently when teams have gone on runs in early parts of games, there’s been a little bit of ‘here we go again’ instead of just having that unwavering, unblinking next play mentality,” Kelsey said. “We’ve responded the right way I think in practice and have recognized the faults of our ways, and hopefully we can fix that here in the late part of the season.”
Winthrop has bounced back, winning its final two games of the regular season, giving the Eagles a 15-3 conference record, which tied Radford for the best record in the Big South.
The Eagles will face USC Upstate, who they are 2-0 against this season, as the two-seed in the Big South Tournament on Thursday at noon.
“We’re ready,” Anumba said. “We’re hungry. We want to make something special with this team. We are definitely the best team in the Big South.”