Two teams with a point to prove will collide Thursday night at Alico Arena in Fort Myers, Fla. Winthrop women’s basketball heads south to face Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the Women’s NIT in a matchup pitting a pair of clubs that didn’t get what they truly wanted this season: an NCAA bid.
Despite finishing second during the regular season, Winthrop (20-11) suffered an unseemly exit from the Big South tournament, falling in the second round to Longwood. An eight-minute scoring drought doomed the Eagles in a loss to a team they’d beaten by nearly 30 points two months earlier.
While Winthrop’s exit from the tournament was shocking, take a stroll in Florida Gulf Coast’s high tops. The Eagles (from Florida Gulf Coast) cruised through the Atlantic Sun slate, winning all 18 games and putting together a 22-game win streak, one of the longest in the country this year. But it all came crashing down in the A-Sun final, when Stetson shocked Karl Smesko’s team 70-64, consigning them to the NIT.
“Looking at their season, I’m sure they were planning on getting into the other ‘dance’,” said Winthrop coach Kevin Cook. “I do look for them to come in with a chip on their shoulder.”
“It’s gonna feel good to get back into it,” said senior Diana Choibekova. “Both teams are gonna go hard after tough losses, especially theirs.”
On paper, FGCU (27-6) put up some gaudy stats this season. They were tops nationally in 3-pointers made per game (9.3), fourth in turnover margin (+7.64) and had the 12th best scoring margin in NCAA (+18.1). Sarah Hansen is the Eagles’ top offensive threat, leading FGCU in scoring (16.5) and rebounding (7.4).
Thanks to the comforts of modern technology, Cook was watching FGCU’s A-Sun final loss to Stetson about 10 minutes after finding out they would be Winthrop’s first round opponent. Cook will have seen a team that lacks a true post presence and runs a number of Swiss timepiece-like actions in half court set plays.
“They’re an interesting guard,” he explained, “because they can spread you out. And as they spread you out that makes it tough for a post player to go out and defend them. All of them are capable of shooting the 3-ball.”
Smesko’s crew is also incredibly careful with the ball, something Winthrop has not been this year. FGCU has over 100 more assists than turnovers, led by point guard Bethany Kennedy, who averages 5.1 assists per game and has a 2-1 assist to turnover ratio. Winthrop has its own dynamic point guard in Dequesha McClanahan, the two-time Big South player of the year, who’s averaging 5.9 assists per game to go with her 19.9 points per outing. But McClanahan has 169 turnovers with her 184 assists, an issue that caught up with Winthrop in the second half of its surprise loss to Longwood.
“It’s gonna be a factor,” said Cook. “Every possession will count and we do have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, but that’s been something we’ve battled all season long. Hopefully, this will be our best game.”
FGCU will undoubtedly have a difficult time staying in front of McClanahan and freshman guard Aliyah Kilpatrick, on the defensive end. The hosts will also have a tough time countering Winthrop’s post advantage with Big South freshman of the year, 6-foot-3 center Schaquilla Nunn. FGCU only has one player taller than 6-foot and has been out-rebounded by about four boards per game this season. Nunn is sixth in NCAA in blocked shots per game (3.3) and must be a factor Thursday.
“We’ll be talking about that,” said Cook with a grin. “Defense and rebounding, defense and rebounding.”
Seasons full of potential fell flat the last time both teams were on the court. But the week away from competition was good for Winthrop, especially as it was spring break and there were no academic obligations. Talented guard Samiya Wright’s injured hand has improved greatly, which should give Cook’s crew another scoring option on the perimeter with McClanahan, Kilpatrick and Choibekova.
And the longtime coach mentioned before Tuesday’s practice that he was elated with his team’s attitude following the crushing manner of the defeat in Conway.
“They showed great bounce-back,” Cook said. “We had an excellent week of practice; we got better, and that’s the key as you enter postseason play.”
Who wouldn’t love to be in Fort Myers, Fla.? Winthrop’s women’s basketball team certainly will. But it’s not a spring break or spring training trip. With a potential school record for single season wins and spot in the second round of the Women’s NIT on the line, it’s a spring business trip.
“It’s gotta be,” said Cook. But he added, “Should we win that first game, I’ll give our players a taste of the beach.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T