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Winthrop battles back, edges Asheville in rivalry game

Winthrop guard Kasen Harrison had 12 points Saturday against Asheville, including the game-winner. (Photo: Winthrop Athletics)

ROCK HILL, S.C. – As storied as the Asheville-Winthrop rivalry may be, Kasen Harrison has never experienced a battle between the Bulldogs and Eagles. His initiation was only fitting.

Harrison, who transferred into the program from Lamar before the season, caught an inbounds pass from Toneari Lane, then dribbled in place while guarded by Asheville’s Trent Stephney. It was almost as if they were the only two on the floor. Gradually, Harrison backed down Stephney, drove by him, and put home a layup to put Winthrop ahead by two with just over seven seconds remaining.

The play between the two had one final act remaining, however.

Stephney caught a pass in the backcourt, charged up the court – right at Harrison – and launched a three that seemed destined to win the game for Asheville. The shot hit the front of the rim, then almost felt as if it froze in the air before bounding off to the left. Preseason Big South Player of the Year Drew Pember seized the rebound and fired a try toward the rim that fell well short.

Winthrop ran to the center of the court to celebrate yet another victorious chapter of the story, claiming a 62-60 victory over Asheville. As improbable as it may have seemed 30 seconds prior – and as impossible as it might have appeared with 16 minutes remaining – Harrison’s place in the storied rivalry was cemented.

“Coach Prosser and my team had confidence in me because I had just made a big play two plays before,” Harrison said after the game. “They just told me to make the decision. We ran an action on the back side, too. I knew if for one second (Stephney) stepped over, I was gonna pass it.”

Now that Harrison has experienced the rivalry, what was he told about it before the game?

“I was told it was a pretty big rivalry,” Harrison said. “They’re always a good team, and after playing them today, I see they’re a pretty good team. They’re well-coached and they have some pretty good players. It was a big win.”

“It was one of those things as a coach that you get in there and you’re like, ‘Alright, we’re gonna draw up something exotic,’ and oh by the way, he’s pretty good when he’s playing on a ball screen,” Prosser said of Harrison after the game. “I’ve said it often – I think he’s a first-team all-league caliber player. He displays that. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable. I think he fits how we play really, really well.”

The win was far from a foregone conclusion. Winthrop trailed by nine at the half, then saw the deficit increase to 15 at the first second-half media break. The Eagles battled icy shooting stretches, with Asheville using back-to-back Tajion Jones triples and a Caleb Burgess bucket to put the Eagles as far behind as they had been all day.

Then, Lane happened.

Lane, who missed both of his first-half tries, came in to give the Eagles some much-needed offense. Lane sank two triples, hit a free throw, and connected on a jumper – interrupted only by a Jones layup – to quickly saw the lead in half over a three-minute span.

“Toneari coming in, that really changed the game. I feel like if he doesn’t come in and hit those shots, we lose,” Harrison said. “I watch him every day working, and I feel like he’s one of the best shooters in the country. Every time it leaves his hands, I have confidence.”

“We have a resilient group,” Prosser said. “I think when things are going your way – and we’re not used to losing a lot of games around here – I think finding a way for some good things to happen is big for our team. They’re just so tough. They don’t accept defeat. They don’t blink. We were fortunate today to come out with a win.”

The Eagles used their defense to overcome the sizable deficit, as usual. That was the predictable part of the script. The Eagle offense, though, provided the not-so-familiar part of the result, gradually battling through the second half with a steady offensive effort that resulted in 50 percent of their shots finding the net.

“In all honesty, I just thought we were really hard to play against defensively in those moments,” Prosser said. “The three things for us were defending, rebounding, and taking care of the basketball. I thought after the first seven minutes, we were hard to play against defensively. Our kids understand that when we get shots, they understand we can run some offense. Shots will go down. We have some good players to step up and make those. Hopefully it continues to get better moving forward.”

Winthrop placed four scorers in double figures, despite the early shooting woes. Forward Kelton Talford provided some of the must-see action Saturday, battling Pember in the paint on both ends of the floor. The Great Falls, S.C., native finished one rebound shy of providing the Eagles a double-double, scoring 14 points and snatching nine caroms. Harrison and Lane added 12 each, with both grabbing three rebounds. Forward Chase Claxton tallied 10 while grabbing five boards.

Though struggling to get to the free throw line and from distance, Winthrop finished the day shooting 43.9 percent (25-for-57). The Eagles hit 15-of-30 (50 percent) from the floor in the second half. The Eagles outrebounded Asheville, 38-28, including 12 offensive boards.

Pember led Asheville and all scorers with 19 points. The Bulldog star turned in a double-double of his own, pulling in 10 misses in 37 minutes of game action. Jones added 17 on 6-of-13 (3-for-8 from three) in 33 minutes. The Bulldogs hit 45.3 percent of their shots (24-of-53) but found the net on just 7-of-22 from distance (32 percent). Asheville assisted on 16 of 24 baskets, with eight Bulldogs dishing helpers.

Both teams return to Big South action Wednesday. Winthrop (6-9, 1-1 Big South) welcomes Presbyterian to Winthrop Coliseum. Asheville (9-6, 1-1) travels to the Qubein Center in High Point, N.C., to battle the High Point Panthers. Tip time for each contest is set for 7:00 (Eastern) with streaming over ESPN+.


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