Kelton Talford paced Winthrop's scoring with a 23-point, 11-rebound double-double. (Photo: Winthrop Athletics)
ROCK HILL, S.C. – The last time Winthrop fans saw their Eagles on their home deck, Big South Player of the Year D.J. Burns turned in a double-double in a tenuous, six-point victory over Charleston Southern. Burns is now at NC State, and the other two high scorers from that game – Drew Buggs and Patrick Good – have exhausted their eligibility.
The new-look Eagles dressed nine players for the 2022-23 home opener and some of the moments were a bit tense for the Winthrop faithful who visited. After the Eagles swelled their first-half advantage to 19, Piedmont closed the half on a 19-9 run over the final eight minutes to cut the margin to nine at the interval.
Slowly, the proverbial fog lifted, and all became right with the world in Winthrop Coliseum again.
Winthrop shook off a 25-point loss at Penn State from two days prior – there are no ugly wins, just wins, to paraphrase their head coach – and finally gave the announced crowd of 875 what they came to see. Forward Kelton Talford notched his fifth career double-double, tallying a career-high 23 points and finishing one rebound shy of equaling his career-high of 12, helping guide the Eagles to a 78-56 victory over Division III Piedmont Tuesday night.
“There were things that were sloppy. There were things that we could be better at,” Winthrop coach Mark Prosser told media after the game. “To their credit, we didn’t have time (to scout and prepare). It was up to (the team) to lock in today and follow the scouting report without doing things live. I thought our attention to detail was very good.”
“Coach gave us a great game plan. We came out and executed,” Talford said. “Everybody touched the ball. It was just fun to be out there with the guys.”
Winthrop (1-1) connected on just three of its final 13 first-half shots, allowing the visiting Lions to capitalize on hitting seven of its final 10. Five of those shots came consecutively, as Piedmont (0-1) rode a personal eight-point run from guard Ryan Jolly to start its charge. Despite the prolonged icy stretch, the Eagles converted on 47.1 percent (16-for-34) of their tries in the opening stanza. Piedmont knocked down 12-of-27 (44.4 percent), including an impressive 55 percent (6-for-11) from deep.
“We came out hot. We were running the game plan, and we were executing,” Talford said. “Later on in the first half, we started – I wouldn’t say being selfish, but just doing our own thing. Coach just reiterated (at halftime) that the game plan was what was best for us and gave us the key points to stay in the game and do what we do.”
Piedmont knocked down its first three shots of the second half, cutting the Winthrop lead to as few as six points and again causing some consternation on the Eagle bench. That run would be the last for the Lions, however, as the visitors would miss their next nine shots and 12 of the next 14, allowing the Eagles to push their lead back to 17.
The Lions went on another small burst, connecting on 3-of-4 tries to shrink the deficit to 15. Winthrop again turned up the heat – despite hitting just three of its final 12 shots – and declawed the Lions, compelling misses on eight more consecutive shots and 10 of the final 12.
Winthrop shot 47 percent (27-for-58) on the night, with 34 of those tries coming from beyond the arc. 11 of those triples found the net. The Eagles also left a significant number of points at the foul line, connecting on just 13-of-24 (54 percent) from the charity stripe. Piedmont forced 16 Winthrop miscues, but could only turn them into seven points.
Talford led Winthrop and all scorers with 23 on 9-of-11 shooting. Three other Eagles joined him in doubles, with Cory Hightower converting 5-of-12 shooting into 16 points as Toneari Lane and freshman Xavier McKelvy adding 12 and 11 apiece. McKelvy made good on 4-of-8 from the deck in his first collegiate action after being a healthy scratch Monday night at Penn State.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for people to get out on the floor and get their feet wet. Xavier had a chance to do that today,” Prosser said. “It was good for him to go and get that first action. We’re always gonna make sure that it makes sense to play those guys and not sacrifice things in the short term, because the long term is what’s most important for us.”
Guard Orry Clements-Owens paced Piedmont with 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting (4-of-8 from distance) on the evening. Jolly joined him in doubles, tallying 10 on 3-of-8 shooting. The Lions shot 36.7 percent (22-for-60) in the game, with a nearly identical 36.4 percent mark (8-for-22) from the perimeter. Piedmont also struggled at the line, hitting just four of its eight tries.
Winthrop now turns its sights to Saturday’s Homecoming affair with Middle Tennessee. The Eagles and Blue Raiders did battle in Middle’s Murphy Center last season, where the Eagles fell, 76-65. Prosser and Talford spoke after the game of the challenge awaiting the Eagles Saturday.
“I hope it’s a really, really difficult environment. I think it will be,” Prosser said. “Our Homecoming games are always very emotional and a lot of fun to be around.”
“We felt like we should have won (last year). It was a tough loss for us,” Talford said. “Everybody’s locked in and dialed in. The intensity level’s gonna be different. That’s one we should have gotten last year. They’re a great team, so we’ve gotta leave it all on the floor.”
The Eagles and Blue Raiders are set for a 4:00 (Eastern) tip in the Winthrop Coliseum Saturday afternoon. The game will be streamed via ESPN+.