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Upstate wins its third in a row in wire-to-wire effort at Winthrop

Upstate guard Jordan Gainey scored 16 points and hit four threes in Saturday's victory over Winthrop. (Photo: USC Upstate Athletics)

ROCK HILL, S.C. – What a difference a week makes.

Seven short days ago, the USC Upstate Spartans took the floor in the Hodge Center somewhat unsure of their fate. Dave Dickerson’s club was 4-7 in Big South play and had lost four straight – only to look across the floor and see the league-leading UNC Asheville Bulldogs. The Spartans knocked off the Bulldogs that day, then led Charleston Southern for all but 18 seconds in a convincing win Wednesday on that same home deck.

Saturday, the Spartans turned in an even better effort than Wednesday – if that’s possible – in leading wire-to-wire in a 79-70 decision over Winthrop at Winthrop Coliseum.

“It’s tough,” Upstate coach Dave Dickerson said when speaking of the feat his team achieved in sweeping Winthrop in a season for the first time in his tenure. “Winthrop has been the best program in the conference since I’ve been here. For us to come on the road and play well for about 30 or 32 minutes is a compliment to our guys and to our coaches.”

Upstate (12-13, 7-7 Big South) jumped out to a rapid lead on the Eagles, tearing out to a 16-5 advantage in the first seven-plus minutes. Cory Hightower knocked home a bucket to cut the lead to 18-9. The Spartans kicked it into gear from there, quickly extending the lead back to double digits on a Jordan Gainey triple. The double-digit lead never waned before the half, even withstanding a personal run of 12 straight points by Hightower to keep Winthrop within striking distance. Upstate enjoyed a 41-28 margin at the interval.

The Spartans continued to maintain a double-digit lead into the early part of the second half, reaching an 18-point advantage on a Khydarius Smith bucket. Winthrop (11-16, 6-8) then quickly sliced the lead in half on a 9-0 run, with a Sin’Cere McMahon triple inducing a timeout by Upstate. That drama was short-lived, however, as Upstate again seized a double-figure lead it would hold for eight-plus minutes.

Winthrop would again finally narrow the deficit back into single digits, but could draw no further than eight after a free throw from McMahon. All-conference performer Kelton Talford missed the game for the Eagles, which proved an understandably significant absence for his club.

“It’s difficult. I think our team’s dealt with a lot of adversity throughout the course of the year,” Winthrop coach Mark Prosser said. “I think if you said in September or October as you’re preparing for a season that you’re gonna have to win games in February without Mike Anumba, Kelton Talford, Isaiah Wilson, and Howard Fleming, you’d have said, ‘You’re crazy. Why would that happen?’ Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened a lot.

“As we’re playing teams that are checking in guys in their fourth, fifth, or sixth years in college off the bench, we don’t have the luxury to do so. It’s difficult. I do think the guys that went out there fought and they played hard. We understand that nobody feels sorry for us. We just have to continue to put our heads down and work.”

The Spartans’ defense has been one of the most significant stories behind the three-game Upstate run. Dickerson’s club is surrendering just shy of 67 points over the stretch and Saturday held Winthrop to 35.1 percent from the floor and just five made three-pointers. Spartan guard Justin Bailey played a key role in Saturday’s stifling performance, earning praise from Dickerson.

“There’s no challenge he can’t accept. He has a toughness, he has a speed, and he has a motor,” Dickerson said of Bailey. “We needed our help-side defense to be good. We had a couple lapses that we’ve gotta work on and we’ve gotta talk about. Our team’s connectedness on the defensive end in these last three games has been really good, and that’s what we’ve gotta continue to work on.”

Bailey and Gainey tallied 16 apiece for the Spartans, hitting a combined six threes and six free throws. Trae Broadnax finished with 10, hitting all three attempts from the field and dishing out five helpers. Forward Nick Alves also finished in doubles, scoring 13 on the day. Alves’ play drew praise from Dickerson after the game.

“We’ve been trying to get him to play his best basketball,” Dickerson said of Alves, who hit all six of his field goal attempts. “What I’ve told our whole team is that if we practice well, we’re gonna have a chance to play well. Nick is one of those guys. It’s great to see him play well. He’s done an unbelievable job since he’s been at Upstate. He’s bounced back from the fall semester, and hopefully he can continue to play well for us. We need that.”

Hightower finished tied for his third-best career mark with 23 points in 37 minutes of action, securing a career-high of 17 rebounds. McMahon and Kasen Harrison each finished with 17 points on the night. Harrison hit all nine of his free throw attempts. Winthrop hit 25-of-30 from the line as a team.

Upstate returns to the Hodge Center Wednesday to do battle with Longwood. Winthrop travels to rival Gardner-Webb’s Paul Porter Arena to square off with the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Both games are set for 7:00 (Eastern) with streaming coverage on ESPN+.


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