No. 4 VMI Holds Off No. 5 Winthrop, 78-73

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LEXINGTON, Va. - Stan Okoye had 23 points and nine rebounds, including a critical three-pointer with 48 seconds left, and the No. 4 seed VMI Keydets survived a late rally to defeat the No. 5 seed Winthrop Eagles, 78-73, in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Advance Auto Parts Big South Men's Basketball Championship, Tuesday, March 1.  The Keydets advance to the semifinals for the second time in three seasons and will play No. 1 Coastal Carolina Thursday night in Conway, S.C. at 8 p.m. on ESPNU.

After VMI started just 1 for 10 from the floor, a 19-8 run pulled the home team back even, as four different players scored during the spurt.  The Keydets (18-12) then took a 28-27 lead on an Austin Kenon layup with 3:56 left in the first half, and never trailed again en route to the victory.

In addition to Okoye, VMI placed three other players in double figures, led by Ron Burks' 14 points.  Charles Corbin paced Winthrop (13-17) with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while George Valentine had a double-double as well, adding 12 points and 12 boards.

The visiting Eagles jumped out to a quick start, opening the game on an 8-0 run and forcing the Keydets to burn a timeout.  All told, Winthrop jumped out to an early 12-3 edge at the 14:19 mark, but the Eagles went cold from there, making just six field goals the rest of the way.

The No. 4 seed then came battling back, starting the crucial 19-8 run on a D.J. Covington free throw at the 13:58 mark.  More than six minutes later, Keith Gabriel hit four straight free throws to tie the game for the first time, and on VMI's next possession, Covington nailed a jumper from the top of the key to give the Keydets their first lead, 22-20.

Winthrop's Robbie Dreher followed Covington's basket with one of his own, tying the game at 22.  From there, the teams swapped the lead four times and endured four ties the remainder of the half.  The home team broke the final tie by scoring six of the period's final eight points, including Kenon's driving layup to give the Keydets the lead for good and account for VMI's 31-27 halftime lead.

Winthrop's Corbin and Valentine combined for 15 points and nine rebounds in the first half, as the Eagles held an 8-2 edge on the offensive glass in the first period.  VMI shot 10 for 11 from the foul line, including making its final 10 of the half, to overcome making just nine field goals and shooting 9 of 26 (34.6%) overall.

The Eagles scored the first basket of the second half, as Andre Jones made a driving layup to cut the VMI lead to two, but the Keydets responded with an 8-0 run and took their biggest advantage of the night, 39-29.  They held that lead two other times over the next several minutes, with the latest coming at the 16:24 mark after a basket by Burks.

The Eagles would not go away, as Winthrop answered the Keydet spurt with one of its own.  A 12-4 run, capped by two baskets from Corbin, cut the VMI lead to two, 50-48 with 12:29 to play.

From there, the teams traded 5-0 runs, with Reggie Middleton making a pair of free throws to end Winthrop's version and keep the VMI lead at two, 55-53, at the 10:06 mark.

Okoye then made a pair of layups, and after a Corbin lay-in, Burks and Kenon hit three-pointers on back-to-back VMI possessions, pushing the advantage back to eight, 65-57, with 7:37 on the clock.  The Keydets maintained that eight-point lead for the next several minutes, including at the 3:19 mark, when Covington scored to make it VMI 70-62, but the Eagles had one final push.

Five free throws in a span of 1:22, including three by Jones, made it a one-possession game with 1:46 remaining.  Burks converted two free throws, but Winthrop's Dreher buried a trey at the other end, cutting the margin to two.  After a timeout, Burks found Okoye for the critical three-pointer that put VMI up five, 75-70.

The Eagles answered with a Jones three-pointer, but VMI's Kenon split a pair of free throws and Winthrop could not score again, as Burks made two free throws with 11 seconds to go to seal the win and send the VMI Corps of Cadets streaming onto the court.

VMI moved to 15-2 on the year when leading at the half, and is now 17-1 on the year when leading with five minutes to go.  Winthrop held a 43-31 edge on the glass, held a 10-8 edge in turnovers and attempted 21 more shots than VMI; however, the Keydets hit 10 of 25 from three-point range, including 7 of 12 in the second half, en route to the victory.

VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom
"I'm just elated with how well my guys played and how hard they played. Winthrop has a storied history of tournament runs and they have a lot of banners hanging in their arena. To have to turn around and play them again wasn't my favorite thing to do by any means. Three weeks ago we transformed into a solid unit, and we showed that tonight. To shoot 58 percent in the second half against a team that prides itself on defense is quite an accomplishment."
 
On the Cadets Storming the Court
"When those Cadets jumped over those bars, it's the happiest I've seen anybody on this Post in a long time."

Winthrop Coach Randy Peele
"First of all, I'm very proud of our team. Tonight was sort of symbolic of our year and what we went through. It's a very tough game for us to lose. I think the amazing thing about this game, we got 21 more shots than they did. Whoever gets the most shots in the game is indicative defensively with what is going on. We shot 74 percent from the free-throw line, we outrebounded them by 12, we had eight turnovers, and we got beat by 5 points. The biggest difference was they shot 10-of-25 from three-point range, and that was the bottom line of why we lost tonight."