College Basketball: Winthrop’s NCAA Tournament Run Continues

Tim PollockSenior Writer IMarch 8, 2008

Winthrop is back.

Contrary to what several critics have said about the Eagles, they never really left.

Despite an average first half of the season, the Winthrop Eagles rallied late in the year to pull off their fourth Big South Conference Championship in a row—and an unprecedented eight out of the last 10 years.

Leaning on their experience, Winthrop defeated the University of North Carolina-Asheville in convincing fashion Saturday afternoon.  The Eagles’ took the Bulldogs down, 66-48, at the Justice Center in Asheville.   

But, really, who was surprised by this?

Winthrop is a senior-laden team rich with history.  Plus, playing in front of a nationally televised audience like this is nothing new to these guys.

And it didn’t hurt that the Eagles lost the first two games to UNC-A this season.  

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs can be summarized in one word:  inexperienced.

While UNC-A’s enormous center Kenny George has gotten plenty of press, can you name another member on the Bulldogs’ roster (the same roster that was bounced from the Big South tournament in the first round the three previous years)?  

Home court advantage for UNC-A was no matter.  The Bulldogs were clearly rattled, and it showed.

UNC-A was held to only 18 first half points.  A mere six made field goals, although a late run did cut a nine-point deficit to only four before the break.

For the game, however, UNC-A shot only 33 percent from the field, including an ice-cold 4-21 from three-point range—usually a strength for the Bulldogs.

In the second half, the Eagles broke away and UNC-A couldn’t get the deficit under seven for the rest of the game.  Winthrop held the Bulldogs at arm’s length, and hopes for a comeback seemingly ended at the three-minute mark.

That’s when Taj McCullough (playing in a No. 23 jersey since his No. 31 jersey was stolen two weeks ago) threw down an emphatic and downright nasty dunk.  He was fouled, still managing to put the Eagles up by 20.

Winthrop players and fans went wild after the dunk.  Even though McCullough missed the free throw, the energy from the Bulldogs was zapped.

And so the Eagles go dancing again.

Head coach Randy Peele has to feel vindicated after this win.  When Gregg Marshall bolted for Wichita State, Peele (Marshall’s assistant for three years) had the difficult and highly pressured task of continuing Winthrop’s Big South dominance.

Having lost two starters and roughly 28 points of production per game, Peele faced a tough string of matches.  And the transition wasn’t easy at first.

After ripping off an unblemished 14-0 conference record last season, Winthrop lumbered through an uncharacteristic and sometimes ugly 10-4 conference record this season.  Due to Winthrop’s struggles, UNC-A became the new chic pick for the tournament.

But in the end, the Winthrop Eagles just kept doing what they do—winning big games and making the record books.

During the championship game, senior Chris Gaynor broke the Big South career assist record, and senior Michael Jenkins plain went off—good for a Big South tourney record-tying 33 points.

Since the Eagles pasted Notre Dame in the first round of the tournament last year, it will be hard for Peele and Company to sneak up on anyone this season.

But it will be fun to watch them try.