Micheal Anumba scored 18 points in 38 minutes to pace Winthrop Thursday. (Photo: Winthrop Athletics)
ROCK HILL, S.C. – “It was a great game. It’s what this game should be.”
UNC Asheville coach Mike Morrell summed up both Thursday night’s nationally televised Big South battle and the rivalry between his school and Winthrop that has featured everything from buzzer-beaters to championships over the past 10 years with that one simple quote.
Morrell’s Bulldogs and Mark Prosser’s Eagles battled for 45 tooth-and-nail minutes, through 19 lead changes and nine ties, an overtime period, and moments that continually left the nearly 1,700 fans in Winthrop Coliseum on the edge of their seats.
When the final horn sounded, the home side had defended its floor.
Winthrop placed four players in double figures and got several key defensive stops to turn away Asheville charges, escaping with an 86-80 victory in extra time.
“We know in this program that when somebody has the chance to beat you, it’s fun for them,” Prosser said. “When it’s the last team to beat you here […] We don’t take too kindly to losing here. It’s not something that coaches around here have ever really enjoyed.”
The usual back-and-forth war between these rival sides told the story of much of the first half. Asheville (10-6, 2-1 Big South) jumped out early, thanks to seven early points from Drew Pember. The visitors held a 10-8 lead when Winthrop unfurled a 10-2 run that afforded the Eagles a six-point advantage at 18-12 with 9:08 remaining in the first half. The Eagles held that lead until a Trent Stephney bucket leveled the contest at 26 with 4:58 to play. Stephney then knocked down a free throw to put his club back in the lead.
Winthrop (9-6, 2-0) again surged ahead, 29-27, before a 7-0 Asheville run gave the Bulldogs a five-point margin The Eagles then held Asheville off the scoreboard for the final 3:31 of the first half, using a 10-2 burst to take a 39-36 lead to the interval. The shooting percentages largely mirrored the uncomfortably tense margin at the half.
Winthrop connected on 53.1 percent (17-for-32) of its first-half tries, with Asheville just behind at 48.3 percent (14-for-29). The Eagles maintained a 24-14 paint advantage to go with their 20-12 lead on the boards.
The tug of war continued after the respite. Winthrop extended its lead to five on back-to-back buckets at the 18:40 mark, but a 6-0 Asheville run again flipped the ledger back to the visiting side. Neither club could establish separation, as the physical defensive battle stretched from end to end. Winthrop finally created a seven-point lead off a quick 10-0 burst midway through the period. Asheville again countered, though, slicing the margin to just one possession off back-to-back buckets.
The game set up for another last-second bucket from Drew Buggs after his winner on Monday night’s final possession against Campbell. Buggs had one final look in regulation after an L.J. Thorpe jumper drew the game level at 75, but his try at the buzzer would not fall, necessitating the overtime period.
“I felt good (going into overtime) because Drew (Pember) was still in the game and wasn’t on the bench with foul trouble,” Morrell said. “I was really worried about him picking his fifth foul up with the way we were trying to guard ball screens. I thought the officials did a good job tonight of letting us play. In a game like this, you should.
“I felt good. I wish I felt better about it now. We weren’t able to get enough stops at the end of the game tonight, and they had a lot to do with that.”
Winthrop again converted back-to-back shots as the extra period started, with Cory Hightower and D.J. Burns giving the Eagles a four-point lead. Thorpe cut the lead to a single basket on the ensuing possession, but Winthrop again stretched its margin to six. Thorpe converted an and-one to slice the lead back to a single possession, but Patrick Good salted the game away by hitting three free throws in the final 33 seconds.
Thorpe paced the Bulldogs and all scorers with 24 points, hitting 9-of-17 tries from the field. The redshirt senior Florida native also grabbed six boards and dished five assists.
“I thought he was really good,” said Morrell of Thorpe. “He had too many turnovers, but our team also wouldn’t have been in the position it was in (without him). He’s a guy that’s just grown year after year after year. I wish he and (guard) Trent (Stephney) could have found more ways – along with myself – to get (guard) Tajion (Jones) more looks, because he needs to have more looks in a game like this.”
Jones had 12, finishing as one of the four Bulldogs in double figures. Pember tallied 23 and grabbed nine caroms, with Stephney contributing 13.
Micheal Anumba led the Eagles with 18, knocking down 7-of-8 from the field in 38 minutes of game action. Kelton Talford equaled a career-high with 16, which Burns matched. Cory Hightower added 13 to his 11 rebounds, collecting a double-double.
Both teams return to action Saturday. Asheville hosts USC Upstate in Big South action. Game time in Kimmel Arena is set for 2:00. Winthrop travels to Charleston Southern, with a 5:30 tip in the Buc Dome.
WINTHROP 86, ASHEVILLE 80 (OT)
ASHEVILLE (10-6, 2-1 BIG SOUTH): Pember 8-19 3-6 23, Stephney 5-12 1-1 13, Battle 4-5 0-2 8, Thorpe 9-17 5-6 24, Jones 3-6 3-3 12, Kimble 0-0 0-0 0, Jude 0-2 0-0 0, Marable 0-0 0-0 0, Lawson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 29-62 12-18 80.
WINTHROP (9-6, 2-0): Hightower 6-12 0-1 13, Burns 7-11 2-4 16, Anumba 7-8 3-4 18, Good 1-2 3-4 5, Buggs 3-9 2-4 9, Jones 0-2 0-0 0, Talford 8-11 0-0 16, Corbin 1-8 2-2 5, Claxton 2-3 0-1 4. Totals 35-66 12-20 86.
Halftime — Winthrop 39-36. 3-Point Goals—Asheville 10-23 (Pember 4-8, Stephney 2-4, Battle 0-1, Thorpe 1-1, Jones 3-6, Jude 0-2, Lawson 0-1), Winthrop 4-17 (Hightower 1-4, Anumba 1-2, Good 0-1, Buggs 1-3, Jones 0-1, Corbin 1-5, Claxton 0-1). Fouled Out — Jude (AVL). Rebounds — Winthrop 40 (Hightower 11), Asheville 33 (Pember 9). Assists —Asheville 19 (Thorpe 5), Winthrop 14 (Buggs 7). Total Fouls — Asheville 19, Winthrop 15. Technical — Burns (WU). A —1,698.