Winthrop down but not out in the Big South
ROCK HILL, S.C. -- As the final tenths of seconds drained away, the last-gasp shot from Winthrop's Antwon Harris glanced off the rim, falling into the waiting hands of High Point's star forward Arizona Reid. What happened next was a dark blur -- the deafening home-crowd cheers for High Point stifled the sound of the final buzzer as hundreds of students in "black out" T-shirts poured out onto the floor, tackling and mobbing the winning team at midcourt. Reid flung the ball high into the air, tore off his jersey in celebration and held it aloft, his face frozen in an overjoyed scream.
This wasn't the Big South title game during Championship Week, some kind of Xbox simulation or any kind of drill. High Point's nail-biting, court-storming, 62-61 win over Winthrop, which broke the Eagles' 22-game conference winning streak and was only the Panthers' second win in the head-to-head series since 1999, occurred Saturday evening. And it was only the first conference game of the season.
"I heard that when they announced that score at the Liberty-UNC Asheville game, the crowd broke into applause," said Winthrop first-year head coach Randy Peele. "That's how big the target is on our backs."
The Winthrop brand name has accrued such power during a nationally recognized run of league dominance that has featured seven league championships in nine years. Last season, the Eagles earned the conference's first-ever win in the NCAA's round of 64 with an 11-over-6 upset of Notre Dame. But for the first time in a decade, the Eagles look vulnerable, and everybody in the Big South is lining up to try to take advantage.
"We're a young team this year, and we're going to get everybody's best shot because we're Winthrop," said senior point guard Chris Gaynor. "[High Point] beating us lets us know that we have to strap it on extra hard now when we hit the court."
Floor leader Gaynor, averaging 10.6 points and 4.3 assists per game this season, is a key holdover from a program that lost 37 points of production from three key players from last season's Round of 32 team. Gaynor's potent spark of a backup, DeAndre Adams, tragically passed away after a single-car accident in May. And Winthrop surrendered the services of longtime head coach Gregg Marshall, who parlayed a decade of Big South success into the head job at Wichita State.
"I've been here for four years [as an assistant], but I still feel like the new guy coming in after Gregg," said Peele, a former head coach at UNC Greensboro. "And we lost so much DeAndre especially. Chris plays too many minutes at the point, we don't have any depth there. Despite all that, our expectation levels haven't changed."
Part of the reason why expectations are still sky-high for Winthrop is that the 2007-08 team has accomplished feats not witnessed even during the previous administration. Once the program achieved national notoriety, Marshall often found difficulty finding power-conference teams willing to take on his Eagles, but Peele already has two early ACC upsets to his credit.
In the first two months of the season, there were hard-fought, six-point neutral-court wins over Georgia Tech at the Paradise Jam and later against current No. 21 Miami (Fla.) at the Orange Bowl Classic. That 2-0 record over the ACC represents one more victory against the nation's top conference than Marshall's teams achieved in nine seasons (a 2001 win at Clemson).
But the Eagles still have flown under the national radar this season, primarily because of a level of inconsistent play that would have been unthinkable during the glory days. Peele's squad dropped its 24-game home win streak in its return BracketBusters game against Missouri State -- a matchup that vaulted Winthrop into last year's at-large discussion -- by squandering a 16-point first-half lead. The Eagles have also dropped a 64-59 decision at Mount Saint Mary's of the NEC, a team Winthrop beat by 15 at home last season. Winthrop came into Big South play at 9-6 and had already lost more games overall than in last year's 29-5 campaign.
"I just wanted to get to 10 wins in nonconference," Peele said on Tuesday. "I thought that would do so much for our confidence as a team. But we just couldn't get there; we came up just short."
A time zone away, Peele's old mentor is also stuck on single digits. Gregg Marshall's Wichita State Shockers are 8-8 with a 1-4 record in the Missouri Valley, having faced preseason player defections after former coach Mark Turgeon's departure, the on-court death of recruit Guy Alang-Ntang, and multiple injuries, including a potentially career-ending concussion to 10.3-point-per-game guard Matt Braeuer.
"It's tough, man, it's real tough," said Marshall, who regularly communicates with Peele by phone and text. "We just can't get a break. I was just thinking the other day about the fact that in my nine years as a head coach, there have been only three times I haven't played for a championship. This'll most likely be the fourth.
"It's a lot different from what I'm used to."
Things are a lot different back at his old school, too. Marshall used to use the Winthrop Coliseum sideline as a ship's captain might use a deck, parading and strutting in fine tailored suits, making grand and demonstrative gestures for the benefit of his players, the officials and his adoring home crowds. Peele's style is quite opposite -- he's down to his shirt sleeves almost immediately after tip-off, crouching in the trenches and barking precise instructions to his players for 40 minutes.
"Coach Marshall let us go out there and play, especially with the type of team we had last year," Gaynor said. "We're a whole different team now, and Coach Peele harps more on the little things. It's like football, you know, a game of inches. He's always stressing the extra step, the extra pass, the little things in preparing for an opponent. And we're like, 'Coach, why does that matter?' But then we find out in games that he was right."
Peele and his players had just three days after the High Point loss to prepare for their conference home opener, a regionally televised contest against Liberty. On Tuesday night, the Coliseum was half-full, a wide ring of garnet-colored seats representing the local community's wait-and-see attitude towards the new regime.
The visiting Flames, for their part, came in with a new coach of their own, former New Mexico bench boss Ritchie McKay. From the outset, it was clear that neither he nor his new players were intimidated by the low-hanging rafter full of 14 banners, one representing each of the seven Big South championships and subsequent NCAA appearance.
In the past, Liberty has been a favorite punching bag of Eagle teams, and Winthrop was able to simply impose its will on overwhelmingly overmatched Flames. But on this night, McKay threw out every junk defense from the triangle-and-two to hybrid zones, gumming up the Winthrop works and turning the contest into a slow, sloppy slog. If wasn't until the final minute when the Eagles' superior athleticism was allowed to shine, as senior forward Taj McCullough broke free for two rim-crushing dunks. The assembled crowd leapt to its feet in a standing ovation, and the team escaped with a 55-48 win, to earn its 10th victory of the season.
But McCullough, Gaynor, Harris and leading scorer Michael Jenkins (13.9 points per game) represent the school's final link to the past glories. Behind the senior core is a wide gulf of experience -- there is only one sophomore and a single junior that play significant minutes. There are seven new faces on Peele's first roster, including five freshmen that currently contribute just 12.3 points and 7.6 rebounds as a unit. This might be the year after for Winthrop, but the real transition is a season away.
"They're starting to come around," said Peele of his raw freshman class that includes promising big men Charles Corbin and George Valentine. "They're just beginning to understand our system, especially from a defensive standpoint. It'll take time."
But for the moment, Winthrop's new head coach is focused on grinding out another Big South championship and adding to the winning legacy that Marshall began.
"At some point in the next 10, 15 years, all the former Winthrop players are going to come back to campus," said Peele in the near empty arena an hour after the Liberty game had ended. "And they're going to look up at those banners there. Right now, nobody wants to be the group of seniors that ends this run we've been on. Sure, it's a possibility this year but we just don't want that to happen."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.