VMI tops Winthrop, 86-79

Keith Gabriel had 32 points, including nine of VMI’s final 10, and the VMI Keydets defeated the Winthrop Eagles, 86-79, in Big South action held on VMI Basketball Alumni Day, Saturday afternoon at Lexington’s Cameron Hall.

With the teams locked in a back and forth battle, Winthrop’s Andre Jones hit a three-pointer to put the Eagles (10-15, 7-7 Big South) up by one with 4:09 remaining, but Stan Okoye fired back with a triple of his own, giving the Keydets (12-11, 7-6) a two-point margin. Gabriel then hit a triple with 2:40 left, stretching the lead out to five, and went on to score the next six Keydet points to help send the 3,665 fans home with a VMI win.

Gabriel’s 32 points marked his third 30-point game of the year, and came up just two points shy of his career high of 34, set three times previously. The senior scored 16 points in each half, and made 15 of 16 at the charity stripe to amass a new career high in that category. Okoye added 18 and Burks 14 for the victorious Keydets, who made 16 of 27 (59.3%) from three-point range, a season high in both makes and percentage.

Two nights after struggling at the free throw line against Asheville, VMI rebounded with a crucial 22 of 26 effort (84.6%) from the stripe, the second-best team free throw percentage of the season. The Keydets also committed just one turnover in the second half.

Andre Jones led Winthrop with 22 points, while George Valentine had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

The Keydets sprinted out to leads of 9-2 and 17-8 in the early going, thanks to hot shooting from the floor, and Gabriel got hot for the first time at the 13:20 mark. Then, he buried a three to start a run of nine straight Keydet points and stretch the VMI advantage to 12, 26-14, with 12:10 left in the half.

The Keydets maintained a 10-point advantage at the 9:50 mark, but from there, the Eagles whittled the margin down. Jones converted a three-point play with 9:02 left in the half, and Matt Morgan and Reggie Middleton added hoops to reduce the Keydet lead to one, 29-28.

The home team stretch the margin to six with a 5-0 run, but the visitors answered with an 8-0 spurt of their own, capped by a Jones triple at 3:38, giving Winthrop its first lead of the game, 36-34. Michael Sparks answered with a three of his own, giving the Keydets the lead back and starting his team on a 13-0 run, a push that included five straight points by Okoye. That run extended to halftime, and gave VMI a 47-36 lead at the break.

VMI was strong from beyond the arc in the first half, hitting nine of their 13 attempts, paced by Gabriel’s three-of-four shooting from deep. Gabriel finished the half as the leading scorer, including converting all seven of his free throws for 16 points. The nine Keydet treys in the first half were the most for VMI in any half since 11 were canned in the second half against Liberty on February 15, 2011 .VMI also made up for its struggles at the free throw line during Thursday night’s game, hitting 10-of-11 in the first half.

After the Eagles opened the second half by scoring the first six points, reducing the margin to six, Okoye drilled a three to stretch it back to a 50-41 lead. WU then answered with the next seven points, accumulating a 13-3 run and ending with a Valentine dunk at 16:01, making it a 50-48 contest.

The back and forth runs continued, as Quinton Upshur ran off five unanswered points to push the lead back to seven, 55-48, with 15:06 to go, before the visitors ripped off a 14-0 run. The spurt included three three-pointers, two of which came from Reggie Middleton, and ended with an Andre Smith basket at 10:56. When the dust had settled, VMI had gone over four minutes without scoring, and the Keydets trailed 62-55.

An Upshur steal got the rally started, as he pilfered the ball from Jones at 10:16 and fed it to Gabriel, who converted a three-point play to cut the margin to four. Gabriel then added two free throws, and after a dunk by Valentine made it a four-point game, Jordan Weethee and Ron Burks drilled three’s. Burks’ came with 7:47 to go, and tied the game at 66-all.

Smith hit a three for Winthrop moments later, but Okoye hit a free throw to cut the lead to two, and the teams traded two-point possessions to make it a 71-69 game, Winthrop on top with 6:07 remaining. Okoye then hit two free throws, starting a run of seven consecutive points by the junior, capped by the crucial triple with 3:40 to go. That shot gave the Keydets a 76-74 edge, one which they would not relinquish, and Gabriel went on to seal the win with his late-game heroics.

For the game, the Keydets shot 24 of 49 (49.0%) from the floor, while Winthrop was 32 of 63 (50.8%) from the field. VMI’s three-point effort made the difference, as the Keydets overcame a 38-21 deficit on the glass. Six of those rebounds came from Eagle point guard Middleton, who had 17 points but was held to just two assists.

With the win, the Keydets move a half-game ahead of Winthrop in the conference standings. Gabriel just missed the Cameron Hall record for free throw percentage, as until a miss at the 1:17 mark, he was on pace to tie the mark set in 1985. In addition to Okoye, Gabriel and Burks, Upshur added 10 points, three rebounds and two assists in his second consecutive start for the Keydets.

The Keydets return to action Thursday night, taking on Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. Game time is set for 7 p.m.

Quotes – VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom

“That was exhausting, but I haven’t been more proud of the way our guys played. They fought, made plays and took care of the ball.”

“Midway through the second half, it was like someone took a syringe and sucked the life out of us. I reminded our seniors, and told them this is your last chance to play these guys on this floor, you’ve got to respond, and darn if the guys didn’t do it. Keith and Stan made plays the entire second half.”

“We got over the turnover flu we had in the first half. Ron Burks steadied the ship. In the second half, the key was getting a shot every possession. That’s the shooting I thought we’d have from day one. Maybe we are hitting our stride at the right time.”

“To shoot 85% from the line was huge. We talked about that in practice, and said, ‘Be excited to get to the line.'”


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