I was a bit hesitant looking at my "I Will" checklist going into Thursday night. I had the Gardner-Webb at Winthrop game marked off. I had been to Winthrop once before this year, but that was on a weekend and I was coming back from Charlotte. This was a game in the middle of the work week, what was I thinking? Google Maps said it would take three and a half hours to make the trip to Rock Hill from my workplace in Conway. I'd have to leave work a bit early, and I knew I could make it in close to three hours, but this meant my schedule would be wake up, work, drive, game, drive, sleep, work. It would be a rough next two days.
I made my preparations around lunchtime, gassing up the car and having a big lunch so I wouldn't have to make a stop. I got out of work early and headed to Rock Hill. I would be taking a route I had never tried before since I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic in Columbia. I thought I made the wrong decision when I got off the highway and was stuck waiting at a train crossing Camden for a few minutes, but I eventually made pretty good time. Taking Dramamine probably would have helped on SC Hwy 97 especially if you're not used to the swerving hills in the forest of the Carolinas.
I got to Winthrop with time to spare as I walked up to the ticket window. I asked for an $8 ticket that was higher up, but in the middle, which the ticket guy apparently interpreted as "in the corner along the baseline" because that's what I got. I wasn't too perturbed with the ticket location since when I walked into the arena I discovered that hardly anyone was there. Next time I go up to the Winthrop Coliseum, I'm just going to buy a $6 ticket and move over since everyone seemed to sit where they wanted anyways.
I double checked to see if classes were back in session, and they were, but was puzzled as to where everyone was. I know Winthrop has had trouble filling the Coliseum, but this was a bummer considering the strong showing I'd seen in Wilmington the night previous. There was no pep band and only 4 cheerleaders and only around 30 kids making up a student section which is tucked away in the corner. The announced attendance of 1295 wasn't near the actual amount as there seemed to be less than a thousand.
I knew the people who didn't decide to show would be missing out. Gardner-Webb versus Winthrop was almost a guarantee to be a close game. The teams play similar styles and always play to the level of their competition. This was the second game in the season series as G-W had squeaked one out in Boiling Springs by two in early December. I just had a feeling this game would go down to the wire and that's the main reason why I decided to make the long trip.
The thing that may not be appealing to some people about these two teams is the style of play. Both teams really like to grind it out and that was the case for much of the first half. Winthrop was having a tough time shooting any sort of jump shot, but had a clear advantage down low. The Eagles' senior forwards Matt Morgan and George Valentine were a force in the post that G-W couldn't contain. If the Bulldogs could have gotten some defensive boards they could have pulled away, but Winthrop was abusing them and kept it close throughout.
The Eagles made a surge very late in the half and scored the final nine points for a six-point lead. Even with the run you just knew that Gardner-Webb wasn't going to go away easily and they made sure of that in the second. G-W was playing sloppily with missed free throws and turnovers, but they eventually tied the game back up with over six minutes left.
The rest of the game was a mixture of traded baskets and solid defense. Neither team could gain an advantage of more than two. Gardner-Webb's Kevin Hartley hit a huge 3-pointer that put the Bulldogs up one and a Mike Byron FT had the game at 52-50 for the Bulldogs. The cold-shooting Eagles responded as Andre Jones hit a 3 to take the lead with over a minute remaining. The lead didn't last long as Tashan Newsome made a cutting layup for the one-point lead. There were two empty possessions on each side leading to Winthrop's having the ball coming out of a timeout with five seconds to go. It was down to the final seconds yet again in the Big South as I had become accustomed to this year. Winthrop inbounded the ball to Gideon Gamble who found Reggie Middleton who had a look at a 3.
It airballed badly, but Middleton was fouled on the shot by a baffled Tyler Strange. Middleton calmly hit all three FT's and a desperation heave for G-W was picked off, leading to an Eagles victory in dramatic fashion.
Winthrop may not be the powerhouse of the Big South like in the years past, but their style of play is conducive to exciting finishes since they play tough D, but aren't explosive enough to put teams away. People in Rock Hill or even the Charlotte area are missing out on a great chance to see some nail-biting basketball.
at WINTHROP 56, GARDNER-WEBB 54 01/19/2012
GARDNER-WEBB 9-12 (4-5) -- T. Strange 3-6 2-5 9; M. Landis 4-11 1-3 10; T. Newsome 5-12 1-2 11; M. Byron 2-4 5-7 9; K. Hartley 2-4 0-0 6; S. Johnson 1-3 0-0 2; D. Harper 2-3 3-4 7; L. Buggs 0-0 0-0 0; C. Hensley 0-0 0-0 0; D. Brown 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-43 12-21 54. WINTHROP 8-12 (5-4) -- G. Valentine 6-8 0-2 12; A. Jones 3-10 0-0 8; R. Middleton 3-10 4-5 11; M. Morgan 5-11 2-2 12; J. Bourne 1-2 3-4 5; G. Gamble 1-5 1-1 3; J. Jerome 1-1 2-4 4; D. Henry 0-2 1-2 1; A. Smith 0-1 0-0 0; S. Diop 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 13-20 56.
Three-point goals: GWB 4-13 (T. Strange 1-3; M. Landis 1-7; K. Hartley 2-3), WINT 3-12 (A. Jones 2-5; G. Gamble 0-1; R. Middleton 1-5; D. Henry 0-1); Rebounds: GWB 26 (M. Byron 6), WINT 31 (G. Valentine 12); Assists: GWB 12 (T. Strange 10), WINT 12 (R. Middleton 8); Total Fouls -- GWB 19, WINT 17; Fouled Out: GWB-S. Johnson; WINT-None.