AUBURN — With his Winthrop boys’ basketball team nursing a roomy 17-point lead two minutes into the third quarter Friday night, Todd MacArthur calmly directed the Ramblers to “tighten up on defense.”
Sure, Coach. Anything you say. The Ramblers raced to the finish with vise-grips in hand, holding St. Dom’s to four points and shutting out the Saints in the fourth quarter of a 79-29 MVC win at Callahan Family Gym.
“We really pride ourselves in our defense, and we kind of know when we’re not playing good defense and when our rotations are off,” MacArthur said. “That was kind of a point of emphasis at halftime. Once we were able to do what we do best, that was when we kind of turned it on.”
Sophomore sixth man Jacob Hickey led undefeated Winthrop (6-0) with 16 points. The Ramblers had four players in double figures and six with at least eight points.
Winthrop harassed St. Dom’s (1-4) into 5-for-28 shooting in the second half and 28 total turnovers.
“I think it’s just too much pressure. They make you play too fast,” St. Dom’s coach Todd Flaherty said. “We can’t mimic what Winthrop does in practice. Our goal is to keep our heads and try to improve and play hard, and I think the kids did that.”
Senior point guard Taylor Morang served up 12 points and nine assists for the Ramblers.
Dakota Carter and Ben Allen each tacked on 10 points and combined for 18 rebounds. Matt Sekerak chipped in nine points and Anthony Owens produced eight.
“That’s the beauty of our team. I love the aspect that we’re really balanced,” MacArthur said. “I don’t look out there and see one guy that we’re really based around. One night one kid’s going to have 12, 15, and another night another kid’s going to have that. I think that’s hard to game plan for and hard to stop.”
Winthrop didn’t immediately adhere to the halftime plan, lapsing into basket-swapping mode early in the third quarter.
Keenan Lynch, Isaac Dean and Wagner each scored inside to cut the Ramblers’ lead to 42-25. Winthrop answered with the next nine points, starting with Owens’ 3-point play. Morang dished to Hickey for a layup before slashing to the hoop for two more on his own. Hickey dropped in two more from the free-throw line.
The Ramblers backed off their pressure a bit after bolting to a 17-5 lead in the first eight minutes. It didn’t deter them at the offensive end, with Morang scoring eight of his dozen in the second period to make it a 37-19 halftime lead.
“You settle for things. You settle for shots. You get away from what you’re trying to accomplish in the big picture,” MacArthur said. “We had a pretty good week of practice, and one of the things we discussed was we’ve really got to work on the things that are going to make us better. We want to make sure we’re constantly improving.”
St. Dom’s has played three of the consensus top-five teams in the league (Madison, Hall-Dale and Winthrop) thus far.
Most other conference games are expected to be dogfights, and true to form, the Saints have beaten Lisbon by four points and lost to Oak Hill by two.
“I think it’s making us better. We’re going to have some games where we’re more competitive, certainly,” Flaherty said. “We want to get better as a team when we play these top-notch teams. We’re not at their level certainly yet in our season. The kids are buying into that.”
Wagner and Bryant have been the one-two punch throughout December for St. Dom’s. Bryant scored all 10 of his points in the second quarter. Wagner, a 6-foot-7 center, rounded out his game with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.
The Saints had a scary moment in the fourth quarter when Wagner and Dean each stayed down on the floor for more than a minute after a clash of heads. Both still appeared slightly dazed while leaving the court under their own power.
Winthrop has six post-holiday games scheduled against their fellow MVC heavyweights, beginning with Dec. 27 against Dirigo at Augusta Civic Center.
“I think as we go forward here in terms of the schedule, we play the big dogs,” MacArthur said. “We’re going to find out where the bar is set and where we stand. I know the boys in that locker room, they’re looking forward to that challenge.”