DENVER -- As he walked onto the Pepsi Center court for Thursday night's East Regional first round game against Washington State, Winthrop coach Randy Peele slapped the press table and said "gotta make shots."
The Cougars must have been listening.
After a 29-29 deadlock at the half, the Cougars started the second by hitting 11 of their first 14 shots, the start of a blistering second half, and swamped the Eagles 71-40. It was Winthrop's lowest point total of the year and the worst NCAA tournament loss for the Eagles since a 47-point loss to Duke in 2002.
The Eagles managed just 11 points in the second half, getting outscored 42-11, missing 20-of-24 shots.
But no team all season -- perhaps in the past 10 seasons -- carved up the Winthrop defense in such a fashion. The Cougars shot 59.2 percent, the highest mark allowed by the Eagles in at least three seasons. Only two teams shot better than 50 percent this season. They shot 65.4 percent in the second half.
Washington State's starters combined to hit 26-of-38 shots, with Aron Baynes hitting all nine of his field goals, three on dunks, for 19 points. Four starters hit double figures, and the one who didn't, point guard Taylor Rochestie, had 10 assists. The Cougars had 20 assists on 29 baskets.
"One thing they do is shoot the ball," Peele said. "And they average 10 turnovers a game. They don't beat themselves. So, if you don't shoot well, you're going to have a hard time."
Washington State coach Tony Bennett called it "a tale of two halves" in what might be the biggest understatement in this year's tournament. After the first half, he told his team they were "either afraid or over-confident" and that they "better figure out what it was and make a change."
"I have a sign on my desk," Bennett said, "that says there is nothing less important than the halftime score."
His team proved it.
In the second half, the Cougars made perimeter shots, dunks, layups. Had the ball been square it probably would have gone in, after a first half that saw eight ties and 12 lead changes. Winthrop's Taj McCullough, with 15 points, and Washington State's Kyle Weaver with 12, were putting on a show.
The Eagles were tied despite Michael Jenkins sitting 12 minutes with two fouls and no points. But that was offset by the Winthrop defense holding the Cougars' Derrick Low scoreless.
"In the first half, I thought we were in control of the game," Peele said. "We executed and laid the ball in."
The Eagles' first shot of the second half -- an airball 3-pointer by McCullough -- was a foreshadowing of what was ahead. They shot three more on their next three possessions, two by Jenkins, and none of them found net.
The snowball was quickly headed downhill. Low came alive, scoring eight of 10 Washington State points, and his 3-pointer with 12:16 to go put the Cougars up 43-33. After a timeout, they scored 11 straight to push the lead to 54-33 and Winthrop out of the tournament.
Bennett said he challenged Low to be more assertive.
"When he gets going, it helps us," Bennett said.
When Jenkins couldn't get going for the Eagles, the frustration level went up. More importanly, the defensive effort for the Eagles went down.
"Our first four shots of the second half were 3s," Peele said, "and they were good looks that didn't go down. We got frustrated. And when we struggle to score, it shows up in our ability to defend."
The offense helped the Cougars on defense, and they limited Winthrop to 16.7 percent shooting. Jenkins, who scored 33 in the Big South tournament final, finished with two, with Rochestie shadowing him.
"I wanted to just stay at him and be pesty," said Rochestie, who added he asked Bennett a couple of days ago to let him guard Jenkins.
Robbie Cowgill did the job on McCullough, after not doing it in the first half.
"The guy who guarded him in the first half didn't do a very good job," Cowgill said. "He abused me. The second half, I tried to get up on him a little more."
Winthrop's Chris Gaynor, who finished his career with 15 points to reach the 1,000-point mark for his career, called the second half "very frustrating."
"It was like the Davidson game," he said. "We thought we played good defense in the first half, and then in the second they made everything. It starts to wear on you."
Peele said his team "looked gassed" in the second half.
Peele, whose first Winthrop team finished 22-12, was disappointed for seniors Gaynor, McCullough, Jenkins and Antwon Harris.
"But," he said, "as much as I hurt for them, I'm very proud of them. I just didn't want them to go out this way."
For a photo gallery of Winthrop's game against Washington State, be sure to check out
Gary McCann • 329-4074