CHARLESTON, S.C. – Winthrop shot 61.5 percent in the second half to break open a tight game and defeat Charleston Southern, 84-68, in the Big South Conference opener at the Buc Dome on Thursday.
CSU (4-8, 0-1 Big South) enjoyed several bright spots against a Winthrop (9-3, 1-0 Big South) club tabbed the unanimous favorite in the league's preseason poll. The Bucs built a ten-point lead midway through the first half and trailed by only seven late in the second, but the Eagles proved too much to overcome.
Winthrop broke open the game with an 11-2 run over the first 1:52 of the second stanza, pushing a four-point halftime advantage to 13. Keon Johnson had three assists and buried a three-pointer to highlight that surge. Johnson, the Big South Preseason Player of the Year, paced the Eagles dynamic attack with 27 points and seven assists. Bjorn Broman nailed four of his five threes in the second half to tally 15, while forward Xavier Cooks filled the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots.
CSU showed resolve in trimming a 17-point deficit to seven at the 8:17 mark courtesy of a 10-0 run. Jamal Thomas notched a three-point play and Armel Potter finished the spurt with five straight points to claw the Bucs back into the game. Broman's final trey of the night upped Winthrop's lead back to double digits for good two minutes later, though, as the veteran Eagles won their fifth straight.
Potter led CSU with 15 points and five assists. Javis Howard was active on the glass throughout, corralling nine offensive rebounds and 12 total.
"Congratulations to Winthrop," CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh said afterward. "I thought in the second half they were just terrific. They got us off balance there in defensive transition. Keon is a handful. He's very difficult to guard in transition. You've gotta be really perfect almost every time and he puts so much pressure on you."
Radebaugh was encouraged by segments of the game, as CSU continues to show potential with a young group still maturing. The Bucs will now quickly turn their attention toward Liberty on Saturday. The Flames were picked second in the Big South preseason poll.
"I love the way we competed," Radebaugh said. "We weren't intimidated. We came at them. We just weren't good enough tonight to get it done against a really good team. Against a team that good, you've gotta be really good in every aspect. We had a few breakdowns that let it get to 15 a couple of times and just couldn't recover."
"The great thing about this one is we've got 40 hours and we get to play again," Radebaugh continued. "We need to have a great day tomorrow. We get an opportunity to play the number one and number two preseason pick back to back. That's gonna do nothing but help this team. We're gonna keep getting better and as we get better, we're going to continue to play with more confidence."
The first half featured an often times frantic pace of play. Both teams got off to cold starts from the field before CSU ripped off a 21-5 run to forge a ten-point lead. Howard bounced back from a down stretch to provide a spark at the tail end of the spurt. He made two jump shots and scored on a tip-in to cap the surge and put the Bucs in front 21-11 with 10:10 remaining.
Johnson proceeded to score all 19 of his first half points over the final 10:01 of the stanza to put the Eagles ahead for good. Cooks assisted the last two baskets of a 14-0 Winthrop run that accounted for a 25-21 advantage. He hit Duby Okeke for a two-handed dunk and then fed Johnson for a jumper. The Winthrop lead would eventually swell to 38-28 on one of Johnson's three treys.
CSU ratcheted up its defense to cap the half on a high note and head into intermission trailing 41-37. A Cortez Mitchell three provided an offensive highlight before CSU ended the period with a strong defensive stand.
CSU plays its second game in three days on Saturday against Liberty. Tipoff at the Buc Dome is slated for 2 p.m.