Winthrop overcame one slow start to a half on Sunday but couldn’t do it twice against Coastal Carolina. The Eagles fell 81-70 in the Big South Conference men’s basketball tournament championship game.
Coastal claimed an NCAA Tournament spot at Winthrop’s expense for the second straight year, and there were certainly similarities. The Chanticleers’ backcourt corps bullied the Eagles’ smaller defenders in the lane, led by 6-foot-3 senior Warren Gillis (game-high 22 points) and 6-foot-4 sophomore Elijah Wilson (19 points), who was named the tournament’s MVP.
“They beat us today,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “They were better than us today, and that happens sometimes.
“They made big-time shots, and a tip of the cap goes to the Coastal Carolina crowd as well. They created a really hostile environment in there.”
Winthrop, trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, made one of its first 10 shots in the first half and one of its first 9 in the second half. Winthrop senior Keon Moore, who made a late free throw to finish his career with exactly 1,000 points, said the home-leaning crowd in the HTC Center boiled up a frenetic environment that jangled the Eagles’ nerves.
Moore said his team’s struggles came from the weight of “the moment. We’ve got a lot of young guys on the team, then you’ve got us (seniors) trying to pick them up, and all of that together just caused confusion and then the gym’s loud. It’s not like we could have just went in the media room and watch film and coach tell us exactly what to do. The moment kind of got the best of us.”
Kelsey was flanked by seniors Andre Smith and Moore in the postgame press conference, both players’ eyes red, again from the moment.
“I love these guys,” Kelsey said. “Two seniors that have really forged the identity that we want in our basketball program. I’ve never coached two young men that are harder-working young men. They work on their games only when they’re breathing and they set the tone in terms of their work ethic in our program.”
Smith, Moore and Keon Johnson combined to shoot 16-of-42 from the floor, but it was on the defensive end where Winthrop’s standout backcourt had the hardest time. Coastal imposed its will offensively; Gillis, Wilson and Josh Cameron drove the lane with success, then kicked out to open shooters when Winthrop began to collapse its defense in the second half.
“That’s our focal point every game,” Gillis said, “is to try and get to the paint and take a shot or find others – no matter what team we play.”
The Chanticleers broke open a 38-38 game with a 7-0 run to start the second half. Like a run-focused football team, Ellis’ crew thrived with the lead, making 10 of its first 15 shots in the second half to push the lead into double digits. A 3 by Smith got the Eagles to within 10 at 64-54, but Wilson stuck a 3 in before breaking down his defender off the dribble for a bucket, plus the foul for a 70-54 lead with 4 minutes, 59 seconds left.
“That spurt right out of the half, it sure as heck wasn’t the nail in the coffin – there was a lot of basketball to be played – but that was a big momentum shift in the game,” Kelsey said. “A veteran team has a lead like that, it’s hard to claw back in.”
Kelsey credited Coastal for taking “the game to us,” and that started from the get-go when the Chanticleers went up 13-4 in the first minute-plus of action. Winthrop responded with an 8-2 run fueled by a pair of 3s from Moore. Coastal inched away again with Gillis, who scored 14 of his 22 in the first half, instrumental. His pass to backdoor-cutting Wilson put the Chanticleers up 30-21.
The Eagles made six of their last eight shots to tie the game at the half. Cameron buried a 3 from the corner with 7 seconds left, but Smith banked home a triple at the buzzer to end the half with a frenzy.
Smith agreed that his team had the momentum going into the second half, but it didn’t translate into success on the court. Gillis scored inside, Josh Cameron knocked down a pull-up jumper and Diagne smoothed in a 3 within the first minute and a half to rattle the Eagles. It was exactly the second-half start Ellis wanted from his team.
“Our whole thing was stay in the moment,” he said. “Stay right in the moment. It’s a fresh start. We get the ball first, it’s just 20 minutes of basketball – there’s gonna be some more of that. You’ve just got to grind it out.”
That left Kelsey to give the first postgame press conference for the second year in a row, while Coastal’s fans, players and coaches celebrated on the court. Gillis said making it to the tournament for the second year running felt like “I got a 100 on the final exam. A four-year exam and I got a 100.”
As big as it was for Coastal to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second year running, there is some validation for Winthrop in again being one of the conference’s last two teams standing.
“Three-hundred sixty-five days from now, I hope I’m sitting here again,” Kelsey said, “in a better mood.”
McCormick: 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T