Winthrop grabs luck of the Irish in first-round win
Going up against Notre Dame the day before St. Patrick's Day seemed ominous for a team that had never won an NCAA Tournament game. But Winthrop had a bit o' luck up its sleeve, writes Mark Schlabach.
SPOKANE, Wash. -- How do you drive to Spokane Arena from Rock Hill, S.C.?
Dys and Gary McCann, the newspaper's sports editor, left Rock Hill around 6 a.m. Tuesday. Two days, 13 cups of coffee and nearly 2,700 miles later, the pair arrived at their hotel in Spokane.
"We even made last call," Dys said.
Last call might never come in Rock Hill this weekend, not after No. 11 seed Winthrop upset No. 6 seed Notre Dame 74-64 in a first-round game of the Midwest Regional. Winthrop advanced to the second round to play No. 3 seed Oregon on Sunday, a 58-56 winner over No. 14 seed Miami (Ohio).
The Eagles' trip to Spokane has been just as arduous as the sportswriters' drive from home. It was Winthrop's first win in seven tries in the NCAA Tournament, after two gut-wrenching defeats in each of the previous two seasons. In 2005, the Eagles led No. 3 seed Gonzaga for 36 minutes before losing 74-64. Last season, Winthrop was tied with No. 2 seed Tennessee in the final seconds, until Chris Lofton drilled a desperation shot at the buzzer to beat the Eagles 63-61.
"It's been a long time coming," Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall said. "It's been nine years. Nine years of pouring your heart and soul into something and being close in the past. Everything that we have done in the past 12 months, from the time that shot went in against Tennessee last year, we dedicated to this moment. That's a lot to invest in something."
It was worth the wait. The Eagles trailed by as many as seven points in the first half before rallying for a four-point lead at halftime. Then Winthrop opened the second half with a 20-6 run, taking a 52-34 lead on senior center Craig Bradshaw's hook with 14:14 to go. The Eagles tried to hold on from there, as the Fighting Irish rallied in the final 14 minutes. Notre Dame erased the 18-point deficit, outscoring the Eagles 29-10 for a 63-62 lead on forward Luke Harangody's hook shot with 2:21 left.
But in the final two minutes, Winthrop ran down every loose ball, snared every rebound and knocked down three shots and five straight free throws in its final six possessions to win. Meantime, nothing went right for the Irish after Harangody's shot put them ahead. They failed to make another shot and were on the wrong end of a questionable blocking call with 59.7 seconds left.
With the way the last two NCAA Tournaments have gone for Winthrop, Marshall wasn't taking any chances. Before Marshall left home, a friend placed three four-leaf clovers in his mailbox. The friend figured Winthrop would need them against the Irish, especially since the game was being played the day before St. Patrick's Day. If that wasn't enough, the Eagles even have a reserve center, Jason Killeen, who grew up in Limerick, Ireland.
"Coaches are a little loony to begin with," Marshall said. "Tomorrow's St. Patrick's Day, we're playing the Irish, lucky number seven, all of those things. We're having dinner Monday, and this guy is walking out of the restaurant, and he just walks over and says, 'Coach, I want you to have my tie and please wear it in the NCAA Tournament.' I've got some nice ties, but I'm wearing this guy's tie today. It's just all these things have come together and it's culminated in this big victory."
Don't be surprised Marshall is so superstitious. After all, his team's best player, Bradshaw, all but showed up on his doorstep wrapped and wearing a bow. Bradshaw grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and was mostly a rugby player as a youth. But when Bradshaw reached his junior season of high school, he had to choose one of the sports because both were played in the winter.
"I was too tall and too skinny for rugby," the 6-foot-10 Bradshaw said.
By the end of Bradshaw's high school career, he had already been named MVP of New Zealand's under-20 national team and was a member of the country's Olympic development team (he played for New Zealand in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece). His high school coach, Kenny McFadden, wanted more opportunities for his star player, so the coach decided he would send highlight tapes to an American college. He sent those tapes to Winthrop.
Sometimes, Bradshaw wonders what would have happened if McFadden had sent the tapes to a larger school, such as North Carolina, Duke or Florida.
"After I went to the Olympics, I had a lot of opportunities to transfer," Bradshaw said. "I think I made the best decision. We win championships and get to go to the NCAA Tournament. A lot of bigger schools never get this chance."
And because of Bradshaw, the Eagles have a chance to go even deeper in the NCAA Tournament. He was dominant against the Fighting Irish, scoring 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting with six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots.
"I think he's a little more valuable than any of those other three items I mentioned," Marshall said of his good luck charms. "He was just dominant. I didn't think they could guard him inside, then he steps out and hits a couple of 3s. The guy is a great player and he can play at the highest level."
Senior guard Torrell Martin, from Columbia, S.C., might be able to play in the NBA, too. He scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Junior guard Michael Jenkins scored only six points on 1-for-10 shooting, but he clamped down on Notre Dame guard Colin Falls, the school's all-time leading 3-point shooter. Falls was 2-for-10 on 3-pointers and scored 14 points.
"Coach instilled in my mind to stay on him and give him no open looks because he's a great shooter," Jenkins said. "It was just in my mind to stay on him, stay on him and don't let him get the ball. If he did get the ball, I wanted to pressure him as much as I could and make it hard for him to make any shots."
Tenacious defense and hustle are what earned the Eagles the moniker "Junkyard Dogs" while they were playing at Wisconsin earlier this season. When the highly ranked Badgers couldn't put Winthrop away -- Wisconsin finally won 82-79 in overtime on Dec. 4 -- their radio analyst said the Eagles keep "coming at you like a pack of junkyard dogs."
One of Marshall's friends, who is a psychologist, found a toy replica of the former pro wrestler "Junkyard Dog" on eBay. After each game, Marshall gives the toy to the player who hustles the most and leaves with the most loose balls, rebounds and floor burns. The Eagles call it the "Junkyard Dog Award."
"I got it a couple of times," Jenkins said. "In practice, you always have to go play hard, get on the floor for every loose ball. Being a mid-major, we've got to come up with the intangibles. We came up with the lunch pails and hard-hat stats. That's what coach wants us to do, and we went out and did it."
After upsetting Notre Dame, Marshall said the "Junkyard Dog Award" would be given to all of the Eagles.
"I thought our guys were a little quicker to the ball and we were very relentless on the glass," Marshall said. "That was the key to the game. I think right now we're going to give it to the whole team. We're just going to keep it right in that locker room and hope to be able to take it to St. Louis."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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