In a one NCAA Tournament bid league like the Big South Conference, February form is critical. Knowing they have to win the conference tournament to reach the Big Dance, Big South teams need to play their best late in the year.
Winthrop continued its trend of doing that in Rock Hill under coach Pat Kelsey, beating Radford 75-57 on Saturday. Kelsey’s Winthrop teams improved to 16-1 at home during the month of February. Saturday’s victory was the Eagles’ 15th straight February home win and in it they showed the defensive effort necessary to compete for another Big South title.
“I credit our kids for preparing for this game the way they did,” said Kelsey, whose team struggled mightily on both ends of the floor in a 16-point loss to Liberty two days earlier. “They turned the page and turned their attention to a very potent team. I was proud of them, I told them that in the locker room. I was proud of their defensive effort.”
Right in the thick of that, Xavier Cooks became Winthrop’s all-time leading rebounder on Saturday. He had six boards to go with a game-high 22 points. Cooks also became the first player in Big South history to score 1,500 points and record 800 rebounds, 200 assists, 175 blocks and 100 steals. If that sounds like a random grouping of basketball stats it is; it’s also reflective of the Australian’s unique skill set.
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“What makes him difficult to guard is his size and length, but then his skill level,” said Radford coach Mike Jones.
Defense and rebounding were largely absent when Radford (15-10, 8-4 Big South) bested the Eagles 85-79 in their first meeting this season, but Winthrop (14-9, 8-4) was markedly better in both categories on Saturday. After a couple of offensive rebounds on one first half offensive trip, Kelsey implored the crowd to get fired up. He was slapping his hands together again following a Radford shot clock violation prompted by his team’s defensive attentiveness.
Winthrop finished the first half with a 13-3 run. The Eagles held Radford scoreless the final two minutes, while Austin Awad, Bjorn Broman and Cooks all hit 3’s to give Winthrop a 36-25 halftime lead.
Another lengthy scoreless stretch early in the second half doomed Radford, especially as the Eagles hit 10 of their first 14 shots to blow the game open.
For Winthrop, a “kill” equals three defensive stops in a row, and the Eagles managed a couple of kills either side of halftime. The Winthrop coaching staff also tracks defensive deflections every game, and they met their goal for the entire game by halftime.
“If you can string three stops together, a lot of times that ignites your offense because you can just get out in transition and play,” said Kelsey.
Winthrop shot 57 from the field, getting little resistance from the Highlanders’ defense. And while Radford beat Winthrop by 17 on the boards back on Jan. 3, the Eagles won the rematch on the glass 29-26, indicative of improved effort and strength in the paint. Radford, which won six of its first seven Big South games, is now 2-3 in its last five.
Cooks was almost unstoppable driving into the lane where he would unleash a dainty floater over outstretched Radford arms. He finished with a far less dainty flying baseline flush off a clever backdoor dish from Bjorn Broman.
Broman was really good for Winthrop, scoring 16 points. The Minnesotan also had a team-high four steals as he continues to shake off the effects of the flu, which hit him about a week ago.
“Sickness happens,” he said. “Thursday I wasn’t feeling my best, but bounced back today.”
Radford’s Ed Polite Jr. looked like an all-conference player, scoring 18 points with eight rebounds. He was a defensive pest too, recording five steals.
Winthrop hosts Presbyterian next Wednesday, Feb. 7.