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Winthrop exacts revenge with hot shooting night at Gardner-Webb

Winthrop's Cory Hightower helped pace the Eagles with 22 in Wednesday's win at Gardner-Webb. (Photo: Winthrop Athletics)

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. -- Maybe it's the 50 miles that separate the schools. Maybe it's the rivalry between Winthrop and Gardner-Webb.

Whatever the reason, Winthrop fans regularly make the trip from Rock Hill across the Catawba and Broad Rivers and the North Carolina state line to watch their team play in Gardner-Webb's Paul Porter Arena. Despite a year that has, to this point, not turned out as the garnet-and-gold-clad faithful have come to expect, their Eagles provided a much more familiar sight Wednesday.

Winthrop turned in a blistering shooting performance, putting home 73.1 percent of its first-half shots and dropping nine threes in the opening twenty to build a 20-point halftime lead that proved insurmountable. Cory Hightower finished with 22 points -- 13 in that first stanza -- to help lead Winthrop to an 86-78 victory to earn a split in the season series between the foes.

It might have even been -- as Winthrop coach Mark Prosser often references -- the best version of the Eagles.

"If we can shoot the ball like that all the time, it would be," Prosser joked. "That's not going to happen all the time. We got some unbelievable bounces. It was just one of those nights. I thought the version of us that was pretty good tonight was our attention to detail and our effort throughout.

"I thought no matter what happened, we stuck together."

Winthrop (12-16, 7-8 Big South) almost immediately seized control, knocking down 10 of its first 12 shots in building a 12-point lead nine minutes into the contest. The hot shooting continued, with the Eagles building a lead as great as 27 points. Winthrop took a 52-32 advantage to the interval following a 9-3 burst by the home side over the final 3:45 of the period.

"I don't know if we were just a little casual in terms of getting to shooters and taking space to take the threes away, because they came out and got some open looks, and then they got a ton of confidence," Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said in assessing the first half. "I thought they made some tough ones, too. (They were) 9-of-13 in the first half, so we have to make sure we come out with more of an edge and a little bit more focus.

"They made shots, which is a big deal. I would credit them. They ran great offense and guys were ready to make shots and make plays. They came out with a ton of confidence offensively."

Gardner-Webb (15-12, 10-5) charged out of the locker room with an 11-4 burst that sliced the visitors' advantage to 13 and induced a timeout. The Runnin' Bulldogs continued to chip away -- ever so gradually -- but the fiery Winthrop shooting continued to hold Gardner-Webb at bay. Winthrop did not reach double-digit misses in the game until nearly 32 minutes had elapsed.

Once Winthrop finally -- slightly -- cooled, Gardner-Webb began its predictable ascent back into the game. Craft's charges whittled away at the lead, reducing it from 14, to nine, and eventually to a somewhat perilous five with 56 seconds remaining. The 'Dogs missed four of their last five, however, and the Eagles were able to salt away the game at the line.

"In the huddle, those guys were vocal," Prosser said. "Runs are gonna get made. They're good. You knew they were gonna make a run. You knew it wasn't gonna end up the way it was. We felt very fortunate to be where we were and we feel very fortunate to walk out of here with a win."

If the second half wasn't Gardner-Webb's best version of itself, it had to have been at least closer. The Runnin' Bulldogs employed several different press looks that flummoxed Prosser -- "we'll make sure that we address that the right way," he remarked -- and induced 11 second-half turnovers that led to 14 Gardner-Webb points. The 'Dogs also shot 51.5 percent in the period.

"That's really what I expected from them -- that they would play really hard," Craft said. "I thought we'd have a chance to cut into that lead. I didn't know how close we were gonna get, but I knew these guys would play really hard and they would stay together. That's the kind of group we have. We've had that all year. We've come back from some large deficits to win.

"We've just gotta keep getting better," Craft continued. "We've got a really connected group with a lot of chemistry and they believe in one another. We've gotta keep getting better and try to win the next one and go from there."

And on the other bench, despite the things that haven't unfolded as the Eagles hoped, the possibility still looms that Winthrop could still finish the season with double-digit conference wins. Though Prosser acknowledges that no one in the league feels sorry for the circumstances that have hit his club -- he's said this multiple times -- the thought of finishing strong still brings a smile to his face.

"I think we've had a lot of ups and downs,' Prosser said. "We've had no consistency in who's in practice. We had no idea coming over here this morning who was gonna be available. Our whole thing is playing our best basketball down the stretch. Have we done that? Certainly over the last couple weeks, maybe not. As we get toward these last couple weeks, if we can get healthy and if we can have some consistency of effort -- I do think we have enough talent in that locker room to compete for a championship.

"Hopefully a win like this on the road against a really good opponent helps build that confidence. There's nothing else at Winthrop. You win it or you don't."

Hightower followed his 23-point, 17-rebound game Saturday against Upstate with a 22-point, six-board, plus-16 performance Wednesday. The senior seems to be saving his best for last, seeing the finish line ahead to his storied collegiate career.

"I think, for him, he wants it to be special," Prosser said. "I think he's really enjoyed his time at Winthrop. I think he loves Winthrop. We've been with Cory as a coaching staff for three years. His teammates want to make it special for him, as well. He played really well tonight. Hopefully he can continue that."

"He's hard to defend," Craft said. "He can shoot the ball so well when he's making threes. He can put it on the floor and get to the rim, and he can post. He was a big emphasis for us, in terms of trying to limit his threes and limit his post-ups. We just didn't do a good enough job of it tonight."

Star forward Kelton Talford also nicely bounced back after not being able to play in Saturday's loss to Upstate, matching Hightower's 22. Talford put home all nine of his tries from the field and added a 4-for-7 performance from the charity stripe in 30 minutes of play. Guards Kasen Harrison and Sin'Cere McMahon added 14 and 11, respectively, contributing seven assists and six rebounds in total.

Winthrop finished the night shooting 65.2 percent (30-for-46) from the floor, connecting on 12-of-20 (60 percent) from distance.

DQ Nicholas poured in 21 for the Runnin' Bulldogs, though he required 18 attempts to turn in the team-high. Three Gardner-Webb scorers joined Nicholas in double figures, led by Kareem Reid's 14. Julien Soumaoro battled through three first-half fouls to finish with 11, while Caleb Robinson tallied a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards in 22 minutes of reserve duty.

Gardner-Webb shot 45.5 percent (30-for-66) on the night, though just 25.9 percent (7-for-27) of their three-point tries connected. The 'Dogs scored 40 points in the paint and put back 13 second-chance points on 15 offensive rebounds.

Both sides return to conference play on the road Saturday. Gardner-Webb visits Kimmel Arena in Asheville, N.C., to face UNC Asheville in a 3:00 (Eastern) tip. Winthrop ventures to the Buc Dome to square off with Charleston Southern in a 5:30 start. Both games are slated for streaming on ESPN+.


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