Longwood had already delivered the biggest blow in the Big South men’s basketball tournament by stunning top-seeded Charleston Southern in the quarterfinals on Friday, but Winthrop wasn’t interested in playing along with that underdog narrative Saturday.
The No. 5-seeded Eagles were simply too much for the No. 9 Lancers, building a double-digit halftime lead and weathering several late Longwood surges to finish off a 71-58 win at The HTC Center and advance to the conference championship game Sunday.
Winthrop (19-12) will play No. 3 Coastal Carolina in the finals for the second year in a row with an NCAA tournament berth on the line while Longwood (11-23) saw its season and a late three-game winning streak end.
“Tip of the cap to Longwood, their players and their coaches. The rejuvenation, if you will, here at the end of the season as they got to the tournament and the passion that they were playing with and as well as they were playing scared the heck out of me,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said. “… I told our guys last night, ‘You better meet fire with fire because these guys are going to play their rear ends off.’ ”
The Eagles, who are making back-to-back Big South championship game appearances for the first time since a run of four straight from 2005-08, were led by 15 points from Keon Johnson, 14 points from Keon Moore and 11 each from Andre Smith and Xavier Cooks.
Guards Leron Fisher and Quincy Taylor each scored 23 for Longwood and combined for nine 3-pointers, but they didn’t get much help as no other Lancer scored more than four in the game. Forward Shaquille Johnson – who had 22 points and 15 rebounds in that upset over Charleston Southern – was just 1-of-10 from the field for four points and 10 boards.
“With a one-day turnaround, the focus is defense,” Smith said. “Everything we talked about before the game was defense.”
Winthrop was up 22-19 late in the first half before closing on an 8-1 run to go into halftime with a 30-20 lead. Smith and Cooks each hit 3s in the final minute to boost that margin as everything was going right for the Eagles at that point.
Smith later peaked the Winthrop lead at 48-32 on a short jumper midway through the second half, but the Lancers remained just pesky enough to keep the game interesting.
Fisher hit a 3 and then got a steal on the defensive end and fed Taylor for another big 3 as Longwood made it a 10-point game again. After Smith answered with a 3 for the Eagles, Taylor hit another of his own. The Lancers just couldn’t catch up, though.
They later used a 6-0 run, including back-to-back layups from Taylor, to cut Winthrop’s lead to 55-47, but that’s as close as it would get. The Eagles scored the next seven points on a 3 by Moore, a layup and free throw from Johnson and a free throw from Smith to pull away and coast to victory.
So now they get another shot in the finals after losing 76-61 to Coastal Carolina in the 2014 Big South championship game. It’s the first rematch in the Big South finals in conference history, and for what it’s worth, Winthrop did win the only regular-season meeting between the teams this year, posting a 75-68 victory in Conway on Jan. 28.
“I’m proud of these guys for having the wherewithal to fight through and find a way to get a win and put themselves back in the championship game, where they were last year,” Kelsey said. “We just talked about how we felt last year in the locker room when we went home in second place, and we have that opportunity again now. We’re lucky for that opportunity, we’re excited for that opportunity and all the credit goes to how hard these guys have worked since conditioning started back in August to put us back here.”