Winthrop wins Big South title with 64-53 victory
CONWAY, S.C. (AP)—At home or on the road, as the underdog or the dominating favorite, Winthrop just keeps winning Big South Conference titles.
The Eagles beat Coastal Carolina 64-53 on Saturday to win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, their fifth trip in six seasons and ninth since 1999.
This time the third-seeded Eagles (19-13) were the underdogs. No. 1 seed Coastal Carolina (28-6) had set a school record for wins, earning the right to play the final in their tiny gym with nearly all the 1,236 fans wearing teal and roaring like a jetliner most of the game.
By the end, a few dozen Winthrop fans were chanting “We want Kansas” as its remarkable dynasty rolls on.
“When you come to Winthrop, you’ve got to know this is expected,” said Mantoris Robinson, the senior who led the Eagles with 14 points.
Winthrop used its signature smothering defense to win this one. The Chanticleers shot just 36.5 percent, well below their season average of 48.3 percent. Coastal Carolina didn’t score for a 7-minute stretch in the first half, then went scoreless again for a stretch late in the game.
“We weren’t sloppily turning the ball over, we just weren’t knocking down shots. It just didn’t go,” said Chanticleers coach Cliff Ellis.
Coastal Carolina’s leading scorer Joseph Harris was held to three points and five rebounds. The senior averaged 15 points and 10 boards coming in.
“I hate it for him. He won’t say it, but it wasn’t his day. That’s not the way he wanted to go out. He may have wanted it too bad,” Ellis said.
Coastal Carolina led most of the game until a key defensive stretch with the Chanticleers leading 37-34 with 11 minutes to go.
Winthrop’s press nearly forced a 10-second violation, then the defense clamped down more. Coastal Carolina moved the ball around the perimeter, but could never get it inside. The shot clock ran out with Chad Gray fighting against a double team, never once glancing up.
Reggie Middleton buried a jumper to cut the deficit to one, then Justin Burton had a steal and was immediately fouled. He made both free throws, and the Eagles never trailed again.
Matt Morgan added 12 points and Andy Buechert had eight rebounds for the Eagles.
Logan Johnson added 10 points for Coastal Carolina, who will get a bid to the NIT for winning the Big South regular-season title. It was just the second winning season for the Chanticleers since their last trip to the NCAA tournament in 1993.
“Coastal’s had one winning season in 16 years. The NIT is a great reward,” Ellis said. “How do we regroup? We’re glad we’re playing.”
Ellis was trying to join an elite group by taking his fourth different team to the NCAA tournament, having Coastal Carolina join South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn.
But he ran into Winthrop, just like so many other Big South coaches. The Eagles won seven championships under coach Gregg Marshall, one time losing just four league games in three seasons, before he moved on to Wichita State. The program was handed over to Peele, an assistant for several years, who had a 46-69 record in his only head coaching stint at UNC-Greensboro.
Peele took the Eagles to the NCAAs his first season, winning the Big South title on UNC-Asheville’s home court in 2008. Winthrop slipped to fifth in the league in 2009 and started this season 4-9, and already there were rumblings that Peele wasn’t the man for the job.
On Saturday, he sat with the net in front of him and smiled at the memory.
“There’s unbelievable pressure coaching and playing at Winthrop,” Peele said.
Now the Eagles turn toward the tournament. One fan held up a sign that said “Bring on John Wall.” Middleton didn’t hesitate when he was asked if he wanted Kentucky’s talented freshman.
“I do,” said the sophomore, who is the team’s leading scorer at 10.4 points a game.
Robinson, who has played for Winthrop teams that knocked off No. 6-seed Notre Dame in 2007 and has beaten the likes of Mississippi State and Georgia Tech, doesn’t care who his team gets matched up against. He remembers his redshirt season when No. 2-seed Tennessee needed a miracle shot just before the buzzer to survive the Eagles in the 2006 NCAA tournament.
“We turn down nobody,” Robinson said. “We’re fearless. Whomever—bring them on.”