With fifth-seeded Winthrop (19-12) ahead by 16 and the Big South semifinal finally out of Longwood’s reach, the typically composed Taylor walked off the court for the last time as a collegian with his jersey shielding teary eyes, accepting in that moment that the Lancers’ championship run was over, and with it, his college career.
Taylor was met on the sideline by a mob of teammates and coaches who embraced their floor general after he dropped 23 points on Winthrop in Longwood’s first trip to the Big South semifinal. It was the ninth 20-point game of the year for the All-Big South guard, but it wasn’t enough to take down the powerhouse Eagles who stopped Longwood’s Cinderella run with a 71-58 win Saturday at The HTC Center to move on to the Big South title game against Coastal Carolina Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN2.
Playing their third game in four days, the Taylor-led Lancers (11-23) spent the majority of the second half chipping away at a double-digit Winthrop lead built on the strength of a combined 40 points from the Eagle backcourt trio of Keon Johnson, Keon Moore and Andre Smith. Taylor and fellow backcourt mate Leron Fisher both scored 23 points while trying to spark the trademark runs that defined Longwood’s first and second-round upset victories, but Winthrop shot over 57 percent in the second half to stay ahead by at least eight the rest of the way.
“I’m extremely proud of my team,” said Longwood head coach Jayson Gee, who coached the Lancers to three wins in their final four games. “It was a difficult game today, and I just didn’t think we had it. I say we, as in all of us, coaches, players, everybody. We just didn’t have enough for [Winthrop]. I really credit the job [Winthrop head coach Pat] Kelsey’s done, the players he has, the system he’s in. That three-guard attack was difficult to match up with, and then their efficiency and effort and physicality on the backboards was just too much for us to handle tonight.”
Johnson, Moore and Smith all scored in double figures, joined by Big South All-Freshman selection Xavier Cooks who added 11 points and drained a dagger of a three-pointer at the first half buzzer that put Winthrop ahead by 10. Center Duby Okeke led a rotation of post players that held Longwood to just 14 points in the paint after the Lancers averaged 27.0 points in the paint in their two tournament wins.
“What hurt us is what we prided ourselves on, our defense,” Gee said. “That second half, they shot 57 percent which is more an indication, in my opinion, of our legs. I thought the inability to guard them defensively was really disappointing but a reality of the condition we were in. We held Charleston Southern to 38 percent yesterday, Presbyterian to 34, and if we do that again I think it’s a different ballgame.”
Playing only their second game in the tournament after earning a first-round bye, Winthrop keyed on Longwood junior forward Shaquille Johnson, who entered the game as the frontrunner for tournament MVP honors after averaging 23.5 points and 13.0 rebounds in the first round and quarterfinal. Johnson did his work on the boards with 10 rebounds but managed just four points under constant harassment from Winthrop double teams.
“Their defensive scheme really thwarted [Johnson],” Gee said. “Before he went out there, I told him they were probably going to sag anytime he got in the lane and send a guy. I didn’t realize they were going to sag the whole team, and that really affected us offensively.”
Winthrop’s victory ended a Cinderella run for the ninth-seeded Lancers, who opened their third Big South Tournament with a first-round victory over eighth-seeded Presbyterian before pulling off an historic upset of No. 1 seed Charleston Southern in Friday’s quarterfinal. Longwood ends the season with 11 wins, the program’s most since joining a Division I conference in 2012-13. Longwood won four of its final six games, including three in a row before Saturday’s defeat.
“Our goal is to get respect, and winning those two games definitely got us respect in the league,” Taylor said. “Going into next year, the guys will be ready. They know what to do, they’ll be more experienced, the four freshmen and five guys who will be juniors…they’ll be ready.”
With the loss Longwood says goodbye to Taylor, who averaged 17.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists while scoring in double figures in 29 of his 31 games. His five-year journey through the college ranks included a job as the starting point guard at UAB, a potentially career-ending knee injury, a full season on the sidelines due to NCAA transfer rules and finally, a senior campaign that will go down as one of the greatest in the history of Longwood basketball. Taylor broke Longwood’s single-season three-point percentage record, hitting 48.1 percent (86-of-179) of his treys to snap Kevin Swecker’s .467 clip from 2007-08.
The departure of Taylor and fellow senior Tyler Akers, who hit his first career three-pointer in the closing minute of Saturday’s loss, leaves Longwood with four returning starters and 13 players returning for next season.
“The unbelievable people, coaches and administration at Longwood, they deserve the best,” Gee said. “That just drives me with a passion. To have the vision to want to win a championship and not be afraid to say it, that’s half the battle. But those players sitting in that room, they believe it. I’m going to keep that mantra going. I’m not afraid of failure, it motivates me. Adversity motivates me. But I’m not surprised we’re sitting in the semifinal seat. I’m not surprised. … We’re going to keep inching forward. It’s going to happen.”