CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Aside from opening weekend, the Winthrop Eagles have lived from their suitcase.
A road trip that began with a victory at Manhattan during ESPN’s College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon ended against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Monday night.
The return journey should be joyous.
In a high-scoring affair, Winthrop’s Keon Johnson posted a career-high 38 points to propel the Eagles to a marquee victory, 84-80.
“We needed challenged,” said Illinois head coach John Groce. “I think they are very, very good. The point guard [Keon Johnson] was terrific. That’s as good as individual performance, maybe top-five, I’ve ever been around.
“They’re really good. If the Lord bless them with health, they will win a ton of games.”
Illinois had a chance to pull away and put away their opponent immediately. Four three-pointers, two apiece from Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill, sped the Fighting Illini out to a 14-2 lead.
Winthrop’s Johnson awoke the offense with seven quick points, which pulled the Eagles within one at the 11-minute mark. Although Illinois reeled off six straight in response, the preseason Big South favorite tied the game at 25 on a pair of Xavier Cooks free throws.
Winthrop took their first lead of the game moments later with 5:19 remaining. However, it did not last for long, as Fighting Illini sharpshooter Jalen Coleman-Lands buried a three-pointer. Six more of Hill’s first half 14 points sent Illinois to halftime up, 38-34.
Similar to the first half, Illinois landed the first punch and ran to a nine-point lead. Winthrop would answer again and again, but found themselves down, 70-60, with 3:27 left. As the clock ticked under three minutes, victory seemed imminent for the Fighting Illini.
Keon Johnson had other plans.
“We definitely didn’t do a lot of the little things that determines wins,” said Illinois’ Abrams. “We just gotta keep our heads up and keep moving forward.”
Johnson, taking it upon himself to bring his team back, netted the next seven in a personal 7-0 spurt. At the same time, Illinois’ offense self-imploded. 3 turnovers in the next 4 possessions presented Winthrop with an opportunity to tie the score in the final minute.
An offensive rebound from a Johnson missed three-pointer put the ball into the hands of Xavier Cooks. He finished the 10-0 run and tied the game at 70.
“Part of that ten point run, [was] a three [pointer] at the end of the shot clock. They scoop one in with the left hand with one second left on the shot clock. And [Malcolm] Hill loses his shoe,” said Groce.
A game-winning field goal attempt from Malcolm Hill was off the mark, sending the two teams to overtime.
In regulation, Winthrop led for only 29 seconds. In overtime, the Eagles never trailed.
Winthrop and Illinois traded points early in overtime. A Jaylon Tate turnover at the 3:26 mark was the difference, as Tevin Prescott flew to a fast break slam, extending the advantage to two possessions.
With five seconds remaining, two made free throws by Prescott pushed the Eagles’ advantage back to four points. Malcolm Hill’s horrid second half and overtime ended with a missed desperation attempt.
The Fighting Illini possessed a balanced scoring attack on Monday. Tracy Abrams continued his fantastic season with 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists. Malcolm Hill had 14 points and 9 rebounds while Champaign’s own Michael Finke recorded 18 points.
Winthrop also had three players in double-figures, including Johnson; Xavier Cooks had 13 points and 7 rebounds and Tevin Prescott was one rebound away from a double-double with 10 points and 9 rebounds. As expected, Keon Johnson was the topic post-game.
“He’s shifty. He’s quick. He’s fast. He has the ball on a string. He’s on skates,” stated Groce of Winthrop’s Keon Johnson. “He had five or six games last year on top of 30+ [points]. He is a 1,500 point college scorer coming into the game. He is the unanimous [Big South] preseason player of the year.”
3-1 Winthrop returns home for a two-game home stand. New Hampshire, who downed Temple last week, is their first opponent while Furman travels to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to conclude November.
– P. Wesner