In the first game since the program’s 10th NCAA Tournament berth in March, the Winthrop men’s basketball team fell to Southern Illinois, 81-66, on Friday night at Winthrop Coliseum.
The reigning Big South champions kicked off Opening Night 2017 by raising the banner to celebrate last season’s tournament berth, but couldn’t keep their season opener winning streak alive as they dropped their first opener under head coach Pat Kelsey, who is in his sixth season at the helm.
“They won the physical battle and we didn’t meet that challenge, and that’s a credit to their guys and their roster and coaches,” Kelsey said. “They did a good job taking away our three-point field goals. We’re a good three-point shooting team, but were 4-for-16 on the night.”
Southern Illinois outrebounded Winthrop 42-27 and outshot the Eagles 52 percent to 41 percent.
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Four Salukis scored in double figures, led by a double-double effort from Kavion Pippen, nephew of Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen. Pippen finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals.
Pippen was playing in his first Division One game since transferring from Three Rivers Community College.
“I think when in your first Division One ballgame you get a double-double that’s pretty good.” Saluki head coach Barry Hinson said. “I was proud of him, and what’s really neat is he went 5-6 from the free throw line. He was our best free-throw shooter tonight.”
A pair of runs were crucial for the Salukis to edge the Eagles on the Eagles’ home court. In the first half, Southern Illinois grabbed a double-digit lead by going on an 11-2 run, but Winthrop would cut that lead down to one.
Another 9-0 run in the second half aided the Salukis, and at one point led the Eagles by 21 points before Winthrop came fighting back.
Winthrop shot the ball well in the first half at a 48.4 percent clip, but could only muster a 30.4 percent mark from the field in the second half.
“You always have to credit the defense,” Kelsey said. “We shot the ball well in the first half and came out of the half and banged a three, but we just got really stagnant.”
Hinson knew he had to contain the Eagles, especially on the three-point line. But he thought some halftime changes were critical.
"We made one defensive change that I won't talk about publicly, but we had to. (Xavier) Cooks was giving us a lot of issues," Hinson said. "I felt like we frustrated him, and he had to score most of his points off the free-throw line."
Junior transfer Jermaine Ukaegbu was a key figure off the bench for the Eagles making a big difference with his athleticism and grabbing some crucial rebounds. He finished with 9 points and 8 rebounds in just 20 minutes. This was his first game since transferring twice in the past two years from Sacred Heart to Indian Hills Community College to Winthrop.
“First, I want to thank my Lord and savior,” Ukaegbu said. “It’s been up and down, but the Lord found a way. It felt good to be out there. We just have to bounce back with the next one on Tuesday, so we have to brush it off.”
Despite finishing with 14 points and 8 rebounds, Winthrop senior Xavier Cooks struggled throughout the night turning the ball over seven times and not taking the best shots. With that said, he kept finding a way to the free-throw line where he went 6-for-10.
The Eagles will hit the road in a tough early season matchup against the Colorado State Rams at 9 p.m. Tuesday in Fort Collins, Colo. The Rams went 24-12 last season making it to the Mountain West Tournament championship where they fell to Nevada. They were invited to the NIT, but fell in the second round to CSU Bakersfield.