Thanks to two straight losses by UNC Asheville (7-2), the Big South Conference has a race again, with Winthrop (7-3) and High Point (6-4) back in the picture.
A week ago, the Bulldogs were unbeaten in league play and had what looked like a stranglehold on first. Now, Asheville has five games remaining, Winthrop and High Point four each, and the possibility of a tie for first place -- not to mention several other spots -- is back.
Asheville's two losses even brought Liberty (5-5), Coastal Carolina (5-5) and VMI (4-5) back into the picture.
All of those teams are, at the very least, vying for a top-four finish and an all important first-round home game in the conference tournament.
Now, what about a tie for first, where the top finisher has the chance to host every game it would play in the conference tournament?
Say Winthrop and Asheville win their remaining games and the Eagles beat the Bulldogs on March 1 at home in the regular-season finale. They would tie with 11-3 records. Since they would have split the head-to-head series, the tiebreaker would be how they fared against the next team in the standings.
If that team is Liberty, the Eagles would get the No. 1 seeding for the tournament, because they won both games with the Flames. If it's High Point, both split with the Panthers. The process would continue to move down the standings until someone has an edge.
Coastal or VMI could be the tiebreaker.
Finally, if no one has an edge, the league office brings out the coin and tosses it.
Winthrop, 9-1 at home, appears to have the schedule edge. They host Radford on Saturday, go to VMI on Wednesday and close the regular season with home games against Charleston Southern and UNCA.
UNCA hosts VMI on Saturday, visits Radford and hosts Charleston Southern and Coastal before closing the regular season at Winthrop.
High Point has the toughest finish, with road games at Charleston Southern, Coastal, a home game with Radford and a season-ending road trip to VMI.
Liberty and Coastal each have two home and two road games left, and VMI plays three of five on the road.
There have been three ties in Big South history -- UNCA and Liberty in 1997 (11-3), Winthrop and UNCA in 2002 (10-4) and Birmingham-Southern and Liberty in 2004 (12-4). Asheville was No. 1 in '97 because of a sweep of the Flames, and Winthrop in 2002 by sweeping the Bulldogs. Liberty got it in 2004, because B-S split with the Flames but lost to High Point, which tied for third.
• TAJ FACTOR: Winthrop's Taj McCullough had 24 points and nine rebounds and made 10-of-18 shots his last two games, and that could be a sign he's getting back to his early season, all-conference type form.
Through the first 12 games, the 6-foot-7 senior averaged 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds and shot 51 percent overall, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 72 percent from the free throw line. He hit double figures in 11 of 12 games and made his first 15 free throws. He had dominating games against Illinois-Chicago (21 points), East Carolina (18 points, eight rebounds) and Miami (19 points).
In the last 13 games, he's averaged 9.7 points and 4.6 rebounds and shot 48 percent overall, 18 percent on 3-pointers (6-of-32) and 48 percent at the line. He's had seven double-figure games, but his high during that stretch was 16.
McCullough has battled hand and elbow injuries and suffered a week-long bout with the flu. He even had a headache during his 14-point, four-rebound game at Liberty on Feb. 12.
• THE BUSTER: Winthrop hosts Davidson on Feb. 22 in the ESPNU BracketBuster game. The 7 p.m. contest will be televised nationally on ESPN2 (cable channel 28 in Rock Hill).
Davidson came from 20 down to beat UNC Greensboro 83-78 on Feb. 13, the 14th straight win for the 22-9 Wildcats. Stephen Curry had 41 points.
Both teams will be busy in the next week.
Davidson hosts Furman on Saturday and UNC Greensboro on Tuesday. Winthrop hosts Radford on Saturday and goes to VMI on Wednesday.
As of Thursday, the tickets sold stood at around 3,000 but that doesn't count student tickets, which could number as many as 1,500. Winthrop officials are predicting a sellout.
• 3-POINTERS: Winthrop's 21-21 deadlock with Liberty was the first time all season the Eagles had been tied at halftime. They've led at the half 16 times and trailed eight times. They're 12-4 in games when they've led, 3-5 when behind and 1-0 when tied. ... Coastal Carolina guard Everage Richardson, who had an emergency appendectomy on Jan. 25, has been doing some shooting and riding a stationary bike. He could return by the Feb. 27 game at UNC Asheville. ... UNC Asheville's Bryan Smithson missed the game at High Point with a sprained ankle, but 7-7 Kenny George, who had missed the previous two games with tender knees, returned and played seven minutes. ... Winthrop has won at least 15 games for the 10th straight season, extending its Big South record.
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Gary McCann • 329-4074 | email@example.com