(13) Winthrop vs. (4) Washington State

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  • Game info: 7:20 pm EDT Thu Mar 20, 2008
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DENVER (AP)—De’Andre Adams is still inspiring his Winthrop teammates 10 months after his death in an auto accident.

Patches with his number are stitched onto the Eagles’ jerseys. They play one of his favorite songs before games. And his picture is right there on a banner at Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, S.C., the energetic backup point guard whose wild on-court celebration was the signature moment of the Eagles’ upset of Notre Dame in last year’s NCAA tournament.

“That just symbolizes everything Dre was about,” senior guard Michael Jenkins said. “The energy, the passion, the love for the game. You know, that image will always be in my head. I’m glad they continue to keep it up in our Coliseum. It will be there forever.”

It was that image of the sprightly, fun-loving, always-smiling Adams that was on the Eagles’ minds as they arrived at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday to prepare for Washington State in the East Regional.

“Everybody says he’s with us,” freshman George Valentine said. “And when we lose, we say we let down De’Andre.”

Jenkins counts Michael Jordan as his favorite player but lists as his greatest thrill “having the chance to play with De’Andre Adams.”

The 20-year-old Adams died May 16, 2007, four days after sustaining head injuries in a one-car accident. A month later, Jenkins got a tattoo on his left biceps with Adams’ No. 24 above a basketball and the words “Rip Dre” underneath.

“We wanted to honor him this season because we know he loved the game of basketball and we know we have the opportunity to continue to play and he doesn’t,” Jenkins said.

First-year coach Randy Peele, who led UNC Greensboro to an NCAA berth in 1996, had to deal with Adams’ death a month after replacing his former boss, Gregg Marshall, who left for Wichita State.

“The amount of pressure, the way that it rocked our program, there’s no words that can adequately express what it did to our hearts,” Peele said. “This is a young man that had a smile like you’ve never seen. He was engaging. It didn’t matter your age. You would want to be a part of his life.

“It was very hard on our players to go through that. It was extremely hard on our community, as well. We found a way. We kind of got through it. But it was very difficult along the way. I mean, let alone his passion, this kid had unbelievable heart. He played as hard as any young man I know I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching.

“I never, ever, even when he was in that accident, I would never bet against him in a fight,” Peele added, choking back tears.

Despite playing with heavy hearts, losing three seniors and weathering a coaching change, the Eagles (22-11) maintained their dominance of the Big South and earned their fourth straight trip to the NCAAs.

Peele said he sensed the same confidence walking into the Pepsi Center that the Eagles had in Spokane, Wash., last year when they upset the Fighting Irish in the first round.

“I just think when they walk out and they see the arena, their sense is, ‘This is where we expected to be. We belong here.’ The one thing about our team is, because of the schedule that we play, it really doesn’t matter who we play.”

Washington State (24-8) knows all about being the underdog. The Cougars were picked to finish last in the Pac-10 when Tony Bennett took over the program from his father last year, but they snapped a 10-year string of losing records when they won 26 times and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they lost a dynamite double-overtime game to Vanderbilt.

This year, expectations were much higher and they posted the school’s first back-to-back 20-win seasons since 1940-42.

“I think every night we’ve gotten everybody’s best shot on down from preseason to the Pac-10 conference,” senior guard Kyle Weaver said. “I think everybody just came out and really wanted to beat us. That forced us to raise our level of play.”

It’s one thing to prove you can compete in a major conference, and another to show you can do it consistently.

“I think a good way to put it is last year whenever we won a game, people would say, ‘How did that happen?’ And this year whenever we lost a game, people would say, ‘How did that happen?”’ Bennett said. “That’s a big difference.”

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