ROCK HILL, S.C. – Top-seeded Winthrop made all 10 of its free throws in overtime to top No. 4 seed Gardner-Webb, 80-77, Friday night in a Big South semifinal thriller.
There were 24 lead changes and 11 ties in the contest, with the game tied for more than eight minutes total (8:02) in one of the most entertaining games of the season.
The Runnin' Bulldogs (19-14) sent the game to overtime on Jamaal Robateau's wing three with 11.8 seconds left, tying the game 68-68. Gardner-Webb held a 29-23 lead at the half and by as many as eight points early in the second half before a wild final 18 minutes of regulation.
Laquincy Rideau finished with a career-high 30 points, Robateau added 14 and O'Reilly netted 10 before fouling out in overtime.
"That was a tough one to lose. I'm really proud of our guys for the way they fought their tails off on the road," said head coach Tim Craft. "We didn't get to the free throw line as much as we like tonight and I thought Winthrop did a good job of making us shoot over their length inside. I'm really proud of the way we battled."
Gardner-Webb jumped out to a 31-23 lead on its first possession of the second half, but Winthrop (25-6) responded with a 9-0 run to regain the lead at the 16:46 mark – its first lead since more than five minutes remained in the first half.
Neither team would be able to extend any lead of note the rest of the way, as the back-and-forth affair featured tough shot-making.
Gardner-Webb made nine consecutive field goals at one point midway through the half, but could not get its lead higher than five points as the Eagles were able to keep up with Player of the Year Keon Johnson heating up from long range – and by getting to the free throw line often and with accuracy.
Johnson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:02 left in regulation, giving Gardner-Webb a chance trailing by one. A pair of shots missed with 41.3 seconds left, but O'Reilly drew a charge on Johnson near mid court with 28.5 seconds left to give GWU the ball again.
Another missed shot from long range was rebounded by Johnson on the carom and he was fouled with 18.8 seconds left. The senior guard made both for a 68-65 lead.
That set up one final opportunity for Gardner-Webb and Robateau connected to send a strong Gardner-Webb crowd into a frenzy. Johnson got down court quickly for Winthrop, but his three-pointer missed long at the horn.
Winthrop made just one field goal in the extra period, but was able to keep up – and eventually hold the lead – at the free throw line. Johnson put the Eagles' up first with a pair at the 4:01 mark, but DJ Laster's jump hook tied the game moments later.
After Xavier Cooks nailed two free throws for another Winthrop lead, Tyrell Nelson fought through contact for a layup and a tie score with 1:33 left.
O'Reilly gave Gardner-Webb the lead, 74-72, with a pair of free throws with 1:05 left, but Johnson drove quickly down the right side of the lane to tie it back up with 56.3 seconds on the clock.
Cooks made the play of the game on the next possession, as he blocked a shot and was fouled on the rebound with 25.3 ticks on the clock. He made both for a 76-74 lead that the Eagles would hold onto the rest of the way.
Gardner-Webb pulled within 76-75 with 9.9 seconds left on a Nelson free throw, but Johnson corralled a miss on the next chance and made two free throws for a 78-75 lead. Rideau connected on two free throws with 4.3 seconds left to pull GWU within 78-77, but Johnson made two more for an 80-77 lead with 3.5 seconds to play.
Rideau uncorked a fine baseball pass just outside his own three-point line to give Gardner-Webb another chance to tie, but Laster's wing three was just short to end the game.
Gardner-Webb finished the game at just 36.4 percent from the floor (28-of-77) and 9-of-26 from the three-point line (34.6 percent). The 'Dogs made 12-of-19 free throws (63.9 percent) in the game.
Rideau came off the bench for the first time all season and made his first six shots, finishing the first half with 17 points to bring Gardner-Webb into the lead very quickly upon entering the game. He added eight rebounds, four assists and four steals – and became the first man in Big South history to finish a season with 175+ rebounds, 150+ assists and 100 steals.
Gardner-Webb led for 22:38 in the game, with Winthrop leading for 13:33. The game was tied for 8:02.
Winthrop shot just 35.9 percent from the floor (23-of-64), but finished a sizzling 25-of-28 at the charity stripe (89.3 percent) and came alive in the second half to make 9-of-26 from long distance (34.6) for the game.
Johnson scored 29 of his 31 points in the second half and overtime, making 14-of-15 free throws and five treys. Cooks finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots – and Roderick Perkins added nine points and five boards.
Winthrop advances to face No. 7 seed Campbell in Sunday's championship game in Rock Hill. It marks the first No. 1 seed vs. No. 7 seed title bout since top-seeded UNC Asheville beat VMI in 2012.