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Big South Championship recap: Winthrop breaks through after 3 years of heartbreak

The Eagles are dancing for first time since 2010

NCAA Basketball: Winthrop at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Top-seeded Winthrop punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament after falling short in the Big South title game the previous three seasons. The Eagles dominated the championship game against upstart 7 seed Campbell, winning 76-59, and rarely feeling threatened. Tournament MVP Keon Johnson finished with 26 points, while double-double machine Xavier Cooks tallied 17 points and 14 rebounds.

Winthrop jumped out to a 12-2 lead, as the Eagles found early success with Cooks in the middle of Campbell’s match-up zone. It was clear early that the game plan from Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan was to not let Johnson beat them, using a box-and-one defense on the Winthrop star guard. That strategy worked for the most part in the first half, but it essentially left Roderick Perkins unchecked, and he capitalized, netting 15 points on 6-7 shooting in the first half.

Campbell switched up to a 1-3-1 three-quarter-court zone press, and a Marcus Burk three with 9:40 left tied the game at 21. However Winthrop went on a 9-0 run from there and a late Andrew Eudy jumper for Campbell cut the lead to seven just before halftime. Eudy’s eight points quietly kept the Camels in the game. High-scoring Chris Clemons was held to an inefficient 10 points in the first half, thanks to Winthrop’s modified pack-line defense that forced contested three-pointers from the Camels for the majority of the half.

Johnson set the tone for the second half with two quick threes to push the Winthrop lead to 13, at 47-34. In hindsight, those buckets proved to the be the daggers, as the Camels were never within single digits the rest of the way. Johnson’s third three of the half gave Winthrop its largest lead of the afternoon, and while Clemons did score 16 straight for the Camels at one point, the lead never dipped below 14 during that stretch. Clemons finished with 29 on the day, just short of his third-straight 30-plus-point tournament game.

With just under nine minutes to play, Winthrop center Duby Okeke (a 23 percent free throw shooter) hit two free throws, as clear a sign as any that a comeback wasn’t in the cards for the Camels. A Cooks three with under five to play proved to be another dagger, and the Eagles essentially ran out the clock en route to their first Big South tournament championship since 2010.

It was a welcome relief for Pat Kelsey and his seniors, who have come up short the past three seasons.

Up Next: The NCAA Tournament! The Big Dance! SB Nation Bracketologist Chris Dobbertean currently has the Eagles as the 14 seed in the Midwest.