Four-titude

Underdog Eagles win 4th straight Big South title

Gary McCannMarch 8, 2008 

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- All week long, Winthrop coach Randy Peele could see something he hadn't seen in senior guard Michael Jenkins.

It was more than the old coaching cliche of focus.

"There was a little smile," Peele said. "It was different."

And then Chris Gaynor, Jenkins' roommate, friend and backcourt running mate, looked in Jenkins' eyes before Saturday's Big South Conference Tournament championship game against UNC Asheville.

"You could just see it," Gaynor said. "His look told me we were going to win this game."

And Jenkins delivered.

He tied the tournament finals record with 33 points, shut down Asheville's K.J. Garland on defense, played 40 minutes and produced a lot of the juice that led the Eagles to a stunning 66-48 win over a team that had beaten them twice in the regular season and was playing on its home floor in front of a mostly blue-clad sellout crowd of 1,207.

Knowing a loss would end their season, the Eagles, who have been down this championship road the past three seasons, but not away from home, produced some magic.

For the fourth straight year and eighth time in 10 seasons, the Eagles (22-11) are headed back to the NCAA tournament. A week from today, they'll find out who and where they'll play.

"This is the best one," Jenkins said, with shouts of "MVP, MVP, MVP" rising from the knot of Winthrop fans, "because I'm a senior and some people thought we wouldn't do it."

A week ago, after losing at home to UNCA to fall into a tie for first place and losing the No. 1 seed for the tournament, it looked like the Eagles' run of titles might end.

"After last Saturday, I was hurt," said Jenkins, who was voted the tournament's most valuable player.

A week later, he put the hurt on the Bulldogs.

You'd have thought Jenkins was putting up jumpers in the backyard back home in Kinston, N.C. He hit 11-of-19 shots, including 6-of-9 3-pointers, and seemed to come up with the big shot every time the Bulldogs hinted at making a run.

"I always shoot well here," Jenkins said, the championship net draped around his neck. "I was feeling good."

It was just the kind of performance Peele said the team needed -- and maybe expected -- from a senior who had played in three championship games. While Jenkins seemed to soak up the pressure of the moment, Garland and his senior backcourt mate Bryan Smithson, playing in the finals for the first time, struggled in the biggest game of their careers.

Garland, hounded by Jenkins on defense, went 2-for-12 and Smithson, chased and bothered by Mantoris Robinson, went 2-for-13 for a combined 15 points. They had averaged 35 in two regular season games against the Eagles. Garland had burned the Eagles in the first game, Smithson in the second.

"You have a chance to win when you have good seniors," Peele said. "The sign of a great competitor is being at your best when your best is needed.

"That's what Mike did."

The Eagles trailed once, 2-0, and were up 11-8 when the Jenkins barrage began. He buried three straight mid-range jumpers to push the lead to 17-8 and forced UNCA coach Eddie Biedenbach into a timeout. Jenkins had 12 points at the half to give Winthrop a 22-18 lead that probably should have been larger.

The Eagles came out aggressively, attacking the basket even when 7-7 Kenny George was covering the lane. And that aggression carried over to the defensive end, where they sent a message to Garland and Smithson that it might be a hard day to get good shots. They were 1-for-10 at the half.

Center Andy Buechert and freshman point guard Justin Burton were big, too. Buechert came in and battled George and Burton played the final 10 minutes when Gaynor picked up two fouls. Winthrop increased the lead with those two on the floor.

Jenkins started the second half with eight straight points, and when he drilled a 3-pointer with 12:06 to play, the Eagles led 44-28.

The Bulldogs' best run came over the next four minutes, when George, getting position on the low block, scored seven points in a 9-0 run that cut the lead to 44-37 with 8:28 left.

The Bulldogs had a chance to cut it more, but Vincent James missed both shots of a two-shot foul and George missed the front end of a one-and-one.

It was left to Jenkins to end it.

After being fouled on a 3-pointer, he hit three free throws. After Smithson made two for the Bulldogs, he hit a runner off the baseline. And after a George miss, he ripped a 3-pointer that pushed the lead back to 52-39 with five minutes left.

"When they cut it to seven, I had a flashback to the Notre Dame game, when they hit that shot to go up in the second half," Jenkins said. "I was thinking 'we've lost another lead.' But we just had to relax.

"Everybody just stayed calm. That's what poised, experienced players do."

Jenkins was the man of the hour, but he had some help.

Senior Taj McCullough had 14 points and seven rebounds, and Gaynor, playing just 21 minutes, had six assists to become the school's all-time assist leader.

Buechert's battle with George, helped by freshman Charles Corbin, was key, too. George finished with 13 points, but had just four rebounds, only one block and he made just 4-of-10 shots. When he was on the floor, the Eagles tried to pick up the tempo.

Mostly, Buechert, at 6-9 and 230 pounds, just tried to hold his ground against the 375-pound George.

"I just tried to keep him out of the paint," Buechert said, "but he's so big, you get tired just leaning on him. But there was no fear. He's human like the rest of us, except he's got some different genes."

With Smithson and Garland locked up and George not getting the ball, Asheville's scoring options were limited.

"We simply didn't play well," said Biedenbach, whose team, because of tying for the regular-season title and being the No. 1 seed because of two wins over Winthrop, will get an automatic bid to the NIT.

"Winthrop played tremendous defense the whole game, and Jenkins was sensational, obviously. We had some chances, but he hit big shots."

Peele said the goal was to hold the Bulldogs, who were averaging 76 points, to 60 and less than 40-percent shooting. The Bulldogs shot 33 percent and missed 17-of-21 3-pointers.

"Some people think Kenny George is the head to the monster," Jenkins said, "but it's their guards. We played great team defense on them."

For Peele, in his first season after taking over for Gregg Marshall, who got the program rolling, the championship was the end to a long, pressure-packed Big South season.

"Last week, we were 20-11 and tied for the regular-season championship," Peele said. "If someone had asked me if I'd take that when the season began, I probably would have said yeah.

"But for us, success is gauged on winning the Big South Conference Tournament.

"A week ago when we got beat, it was a sad day. To come back like this speaks volumes about these guys."

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

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