BOILING SPRINGS – Winthrop's Duby Okeke blocked a layup attempt by Tyrell Nelson in the final seconds and the Eagles held on for a 72-70 win in a wild Big South Conference affair Thursday night.
Gardner-Webb (11-11, 4-5 Big South) fell behind 37-21 at intermission after shooting just 21.4 percent in the opening half – and trailed 50-31 with 16:06 left in the game after Winthrop (16-4, 8-1 Big South) continued to make shots in the early moments of the second half.
The Runnin' Bulldogs rallied from there, storming on a 15-0 run to get back in the game with 11:27 left. Gardner-Webb trimmed the lead to just one twice in the next two minutes, before Winthrop recovered to push its advantage back to four points – 58-54 – with 9:46 remaining on a pair of free throws by Joshua Davenport.
After Davenport drained a runner with 7:40 left to push Winthrop in front 62-59, D.J. Laster stepped into a three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the score with 7:19 remaining in the game.
The Eagles would regain the lead – but Gardner-Webb would not go away – using transition to keep the game within a possession for much of the final five minutes. Laquincy Rideau's layup with 1:41 left cut the lead to 70-69.
Liam O'Reilly stripped Xavier Cooks on a drive on Winthrop's next possession and Rideau got into the lane and was fouled with 1:12 on the clock. The West Palm Beach, Fla., junior made one of his two free throws to tie the game – and Gardner-Webb had a golden chance to go in front soon after.
Johnson missed a long three-pointer with 49.2 seconds left and Rideau grabbed the rebound and found Nelson streaking into the paint on the other end. Nelson's contested dunk attempt was off the back rim, however, and Winthrop corralled the rebound with 31 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Eagles were able to work the shot clock down and feed Cooks, who was fouled on a drive with 14.1 seconds left. The Australian junior connected on both to give Winthrop a 72-70 lead.
Gardner-Webb raced to its end of the court and called a timeout with 11.2 seconds left to call a play and avoided disaster when a near turnover was tied up with 3.2 seconds left out of the stoppage.
That set up the decisive play, when Nelson took a feed over the top and was met by a pair of Winthrop defenders at the rim. Okeke got his hand on the shot and Laster's offensive rebound and put back attempt was after the horn – and Winthrop celebrated its seventh Big South win in a row.
Gardner-Webb proved its potential in the final 20 minutes, shooting 69.2 percent from the floor and a respectable 71.4 percent from the charity stripe (10-of-14) by buckling down on defense and forcing pace in transition. That pushed GWU's game total to 44.4 percent (24-of-54), with many of those made baskets coming in the paint.
Laster came off the bench with a major boost, scoring a career-high 20 points in 25 minutes of action. The Pensacola, Fla., sophomore was 6-of-9 from the floor and 7-of-10 from the free throw line. Efianayi scored a game-high 22 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and made 8-of-9 free throws.
Rideau added 11 points, six rebounds and three steals despite battling early foul trouble.
The Runnin' Bulldogs held a 37-32 rebounding edge, which included 12 offensive caroms.
Winthrop got a team-high 19 points from Cooks, who also battled foul trouble (4) and turnovers (5) in 23 minutes of action. Johnson scored 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting, but provided a steadying hand with four assists. Okeke finished with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting – all rim-rattling dunks – in just 15 minutes.
The Eagles shot 50.0 percent in the first half (13-of-26) and finished at 46.4 percent for the game (26-of-56).
The Runnin' Bulldogs will hit the road this weekend, traveling to Charleston Southern on Saturday (Jan. 28) for a 5:00 pm tip. The game will stream live on The Big South Network (bigsouthsports.com).