By Whitney Taylor
As every member of the Winthrop’s men’s basketball team climbed the ladder and claimed their piece of history, students, alumni and fans stood cheering for the new Big South champions.
The Eagles claimed their 11th Big South Championship after flying past Campbell University 76-59 Sunday afternoon.
With this win, the Eagles have punched their ticket to play in the NCAA National Championship Tournament, their first since 2010 and their first under Head Coach Pat Kelsey.
Before Sunday’s game, the Eagles had lost their previous last three Big South Championship games.
“We’ve gotten really close the last three years, and I’ve been in some real lonely locker rooms,” Kelsey said.
This season was different. The Eagles claimed the No. 1 seed and earned a bye for the first round.
They met and defeated Charleston Southern 92-78 in the quaterfinals, then just barely clawed themselves out in a 80-77 game against Gardner-Webb on Friday to earn their fourth Big South championship appearance. The expectation at this point was to win on championship Sunday against Campbell University and make it to the NCAA tournament.
“This is such a determined bunch. They were not gonna be denied,” Kelsey said.
Eagles start off hot
Winthrop started the game on 12-3 run with less than five minutes played. Forward Roderick Perkins contributed eight of those 12 points, six of them from behind the arc.
Campbell, however, would return the favor with 18-9 run ending with two huge threes from guard Marcus Burke to tie the game at 21 with 9:51 left in the first half.
Winthrop guard Bjorn Broman would attempt a three to answer back, but missed with forward Tevin Prescott recovering the huge rebound to allow Perkins to score a driving layup and later another three points from behind the arc to cap a 5-0 run.
Perkins would shoot 6-7 from the floor, 3-3 from behind the arc and contribute 15 crucial points in the first half.
“Rod [Perkins] was that guy, he played great for us when we really need it,” said forward Xavier Cooks.
After coming off two 30-point games, guard Keon Johnson struggled in the first half, shooting 1-8 from the floor and scoring six points.
“I was getting good looks, but I felt I was rushing my shots,” Johnson said.
Johnson would later make up for his slow start by shooting back-to-back 3-point jumpers to open the second half and extend the Eagles lead 47-34.
Johnson would go to the line for three, while Prescott would follow two more to add another five points to create an 11-2 run, a hump the Campbell Camels just could not over come in the end.
A Cinderella Story
The Fighting Camels were on a Cinderella run in the tournament after finishing 15-16 in their regular season, earning them a seventh seed in the tournament.
The Camels upset No. 2 UNC Asheville and No. 6 Radford and looked to do the same to the Eagles, but they just didn not have the firepower at the end.
The Camels only scored 25 points in the second half, while Winthrop scored 35.
Winthrop’s defense proved to be too much for the Camels. The Eagles held Campbell under 0.87 points per possession, which bettered the team’s regular season average of 0.97 when they met.
Campbell’s star point guard Chris Clemons scored 29 points in the game, but was held 2-12 from the floor in the critical first half.
Clemons, along with guard Marcus Burke, were the only Campbell players in the double digits.
Winthrop’s defense would allow the Fighting Camels to shoot 34.9 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range, compared to the Eagles 45.1 percent and 38.5 percent.
Despite the slow start, Johnson was four points shy from a record third straight 30-point game in the tournament, with a team high 26 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
This was Johnson’s final Big South game and final home game. He did not disappoint by putting on a Big South Tournament MVP performance and returning the Big South Championship trophy to Winthrop.
“It means a lot… today, I just wanted to cherish every second, and I did that and we came out champions,” Johnson said.
Cooks would finish the fame with a double-double 17 points and 14 rebounds on seven shots. Cooks was named to the Big South All-Tournament team.
The Eagles will have a week before they find out who they will play in the NCAA tournament, but there is one thing Cooks said he wants the nation to know about his team.
“We are consistent… we do what we do, we play the same defense and play hard… no one cares who gets the credit… we play for the other guy,” Cooks said.
As for their NCAA bid, the Eagles look to make history by being the second team to win a NCAA tournament game in Winthrop history. The first team to do it was the 2007 men’s basketball team when the Eagles beat Notre Dame.