CONWAY — If the Winthrop women’s basketball team advances to Sunday’s final round of the Big South Conference tournament in Conway, it will have achieved one of its goals: a postseason appearance in either the women’s NIT or an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament. Winning the Big South tournament for the first time in program history would guarantee an NCAA berth, and knock out two more goals in what’s been an excellent 2012-13 campaign thus far.
The journey begins Friday when No. 2 seed Winthrop faces No. 7 Longwood at noon. The Lancers beat No. 10 Charleston Southern 70-63 in the first round of the tournament Wednesday. The Eagles (20-10) swept Longwood (12-18) in the regular season, narrowly beating them 79-74 in Farmville, Va., on Jan. 5 before hitting on all cylinders in a 78-46 bashing Feb. 21 in Rock Hill.
The Eagles earned the No. 2 seed because of a tiebreaker over Presbyterian. Both teams finished 14-4 during the regular season, but Kevin Cook’s team beat the Blue Hose twice, earning the higher seed. Liberty claimed the top spot, and if the seeds hold true to form, could meet Winthrop in Sunday’s final.
Winthrop won 18 games last year, but was surprised by No. 6 Radford with a 62-56 loss in the first round of the tournament. The Eagles enter this year’s event on the strength of a five-game winning streak, part of a school-record 14 Big South wins. Winthrop hung 100 points on UNC Asheville last Saturday, the first time the Eagles topped the century mark against a Division I opponent. The win clinched a first 20-win season since 2007-08, only the second in the team’s history.
This weekend will be a final run in Big South play for Winthrop’s dynamic backcourt pair of junior Dequesha McClanahan and senior Diana Choibekova. The senior scored 33 points against UNC Asheville in her last home game at Winthrop Coliseum, while McClanahan chipped in 31 in the win. Cook doesn’t expect that level of excellence every game in Conway, but the two will have the biggest say in how far the Eagles progress through the bracket.
McClanahan is averaging a Big South-best 19.8 points per game, in addition to 5.9 assists. She recently was named the league’s player of the year, only the sixth Eagle in the Big South’s history, and is on a hot streak in her last six contests, in which she’s averaged 25.5 points. If she can keep that up, the Eagles stand a solid shot at breaking a postseason drought that dates back to the 2008-09 season, when Winthrop reached the Big South final and then played in the NIT.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T