Underdog role is unfamiliar to Eagles

Gary McCannMarch 8, 2008 

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- At about 3:30 on a rainy and chilly afternoon in the North Carolina mountains, in a gym called the "Greenie Dome" on the campus of Christ School, Winthrop's basketball team held what might have been its final practice of the season.

The Eagles play UNC Asheville in the Big South Conference Tournament championship at 11:30 a.m. today. A packed house in the Justice Center -- an arena whose size might make a sardine can feel good -- and a national television audience on ESPN2 (cable channel 28 in Rock Hill) will watch.

If the Eagles win, they claim their fourth straight tournament title and fourth consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament.

In other words, seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins and Taj McCullough, who have been a part of the past three, and Antwon Harris, the junior college transfer who came along last year, will be trying to do what they've always done.

Collect another championship ring.

On Friday, they weren't thinking about last practices. You can't think that way and win. You try to handle what you can control.

But there's no doubt this season has been different. Nothing says it more than the fact the Eagles are the underdogs against the Bulldogs today. In the past three years, that's not a role they've played very often at all, much less in the Big South.

Winthrop won 27, 23 and 29 games the past three years. In 2005, they almost beat Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament. In 2006, they almost beat Tennessee. Last March they whipped Notre Dame.

With each year, the bar was kicked up a notch.

None of them are, but this hasn't been an easy season for Winthrop basketball, and on Thursday night, after his Eagles had beaten High Point 61-53 to advance, coach Randy Peele talked about this team and what it has been through over the course of a 21-11 season that, by Winthrop standards, could have been better.

"These guys have been under a microscope, a target every single day," Peele said. "There's been a lot of pressure on these players, and they've performed admirably."

Since last April, when Gregg Marshall packed his bags for Wichita State, it's been assumed by many that the Winthrop run was over. Without Marshall, the architect of seven conference titles in nine years, the program would take a hit, and they weren't picked to win the league in the preseason poll.

"People thought we'd be in a downfall," Gaynor said Friday, while clipping the tape from his ankles after what could be his last practice as a college player.

Thinking the program would take a drop without Marshall was a slap at Peele, who had been Marshall's right-hand man for three seasons and recruited Gaynor, McCullough and Jenkins.

Without Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams, the core of the past three title teams, the Eagles couldn't possibly lose that much talent and remain a contender.

Because the Eagles had won so impressively the past three seasons, Winthrop fans were spoiled, too. When the team hit some bumps in the road this year, the fans didn't show up as often, including last week's pitiful 1,800 who came to the Winthrop Coliseum for the first-round tournament game.

But through a season that started last October, the players have done what players do -- lace up the sneakers and get after it. They got after it one more time during Friday's light practice.

"Every day, we work hard," Peele yelled as though it were Oct. 15 and not March 8.

"One more game," he said. "It's right here."

On Friday, the seniors had differing opinions on how much pressure they'd faced this year.

Harris said he "did and didn't feel pressure," that he knew the team had big shoes to fill and that "it would be difficult."

McCullough, who's about as laid back as a 6-foot-7, 230-pound guy can be, said "Nah, didn't feel any."

Jenkins said he felt some early because the Eagles weren't picked to win the league again and that he "wanted to prove people wrong." But he said he "tried not to play that way," to be confident and just play hard.

But Gaynor, who became the starter at point guard almost before the ink dried on his signature on his grant-in-aid, said he couldn't believe they didn't feel it. He admitted this has been a pressure-packed season for him, more so than the others.

Because that's what happens when you win.

"After my freshman year, I always felt pressure," he said, "because you always want to do better than the year before. I feel a lot of pressure being a senior point guard.

"This (chance for a championship) definitely means more. I want to finish it, to go out on top."

Gaynor, McCullough and Jenkins have been part of the most remarkable run in Winthrop history. They've certainly had help in winning 100 games in their careers. Martin, Bradshaw and Williams were big parts of it, but so were James Shuler, Otis Daniels, De'Andre Adams and others.

When Winthrop beat High Point on Thursday night, it was the 500th win in the 30-year history of the program. The past four seasons have seen one-fifth of the program's victories.

"That's an unbelievable stat," Gaynor said. "And it gives you confidence to try and get number 101."

That's what's left for the seniors today. One more win, and they go to the NCAAs again.

While they differed on how much pressure this year has generated, they agreed they'd win today.

"We want it," McCullough said.

"Everybody wants it," Gaynor said. "The freshmen are talking about their first rings, and we want a fourth."

"We're hungry," Jenkins said, "and know what it takes to win."

"We just want it," Harris said.

This has been a different season at Winthrop, but early this afternoon, it could end the way the players, at least, expected.

They expect to be at practice next week.

On the big screen

Eagle fans who want to see today's big game against UNC-Asheville can watch it on the video board at the Winthrop University Coliseum.

Doors will open at 11 a.m., with the tip-off scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Admission is free.

Gary McCann • 329-4074 | gmccann@heraldonline.com

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