CONWAY — After the victory photo had been snapped, the strands of net had been cut and the media had asked all of its questions, Winthrop women’s basketball star Dequesha McClanahan raised up to leave the press room.
Her coach, Kevin Cook, said wait a minute. He pulled from his pocket a loop of black plastic rings and jangled them in her direction. McClanahan grinned from earlobe to earlobe. Her conference championship ring finger is a size seven-and-a-half.
“Dequesha’s won all the awards, but wanted a ring,” said Cook, turning to the three-time Big South Player of the Year seated next to him. “You’ll get a pretty nice ring, Dequesha.”
The Eagles (24-8) pulled away in the second half from High Point (22-10) in Sunday’s conference tournament title game, winning 87-74 and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. McClanahan, the tournament’s MVP, scored 24 points to go with 13 rebounds, six assists and four steals. It was an imperious performance in her last game in the Big South Conference, a reminder that she’s arguably the best player the league has ever seen.
“What a game; what a tournament,” said Cook, looking drained after a tough weekend and an hour less of sleep Saturday night.
McClanahan’s senior teammates, Tiffany Charles and Samiya Wright, certainly played their parts, Charles scoring 12 points on 10 free throws and grabbing seven rebounds, while Wright scored 13. Freshman Erica Williams added 18 points and eight rebounds to the cause. Pam Decheva added a crucial seven points off the bench.
All four of those players ensured that Winthrop didn’t slip when McClanahan picked up her fourth foul with 8 minutes, 47 seconds left and the Eagles leading 71-61. Winthrop actually grew its lead by a point, a demoralizing development for the Panthers.
“When Dequesha went out, we wanted to go on a run right there, we had to take advantage of that,” said High Point’s Stacia Robertson, who led the Panthers with 18 points. “I just remember a few turnovers that were key.”
The Eagles had worn down a bit when High Point beat them several weeks ago, snatching a late victory in Rock Hill. Cook’s team knew it needed to distance itself from the Panthers, manufacture some separation.
“That’s my favorite word this whole weekend, separation,” said McClanahan. “We knew that was the only way we could accomplish what he have accomplished today.”
“I really thought that our depth would be to our advantage,” said DeUnna Hendrix, High Point’s coach. “They play five, six kids a lot of minutes and that’s why we were playing the pace we were playing. Give it to them, their role players stepped up. That’s what a championship team does.”
The two teams combined for 46 fouls, including 26 in the first half alone. Winthrop center Schaquilla Nunn was limited to 5 minutes of action in the first half because of quick foul trouble. High Point took advantage, running its offense through post players operating in the soft underbelly of the Winthrop defense on and around the foul line.
Robertson was the most troublesome to the Eagles from that spot, scoring 10 in the first half until foul trouble got her benched too. Latrice Phelps and DeAnneisha Jackson were having similar success in Robertson’s stead, though, and it was Phelps’ soft jumper in the lane that gave High Point a 26-18 lead with 8 minutes, 39 seconds left in the half.
Winthrop diffused the sketchy-looking situation with a 10-2 run, and then after slipping behind again, closed the half on an 8-0 run, McClanahan flicking a pass back to Wright for a 3 with 4 seconds left in the half and a 42-39 Eagle lead at the intermission.
McClanahan’s demeanor shifted early in the second half when she scored nine points in a 6-minute stretch and set up a couple other buckets with steals to help the Eagles stretch their lead to 71-61.
“My teammates look to me as a leader so I can’t show any fear,” said McClanahan. “That was one thing, I made sure I didn’t show any fear.”
Even when McClanahan was on the bench with foul trouble, Winthrop retained control. Williams rebounded her own misses near the basket twice before finally finishing, and after a defensive stop, Decheva canned a 3 from the left corner to extend the Eagle lead to 78-66 with about 6 minutes left. High Point never mounted the kind of run that helped them beat Winthrop on Feb. 27.
“Wasn’t that an amazing deal?” Cook said. “Our team came together at just the right time. It took some meetings, it took some discussion, it took some players being brutally honest with me, but we came together. That’s what this is all about.”
It was fitting that Charles snatched the offensive rebound on the final, meaningless possession. She passed out to her senior teammate McClanahan, who gleefully dribbled the ball around near half court before accepting the full brunt of her onrushing teammates’ simultaneous hugs.
All of the members of the Winthrop’s women’s basketball program will get those championship rings, but Cook wanted one more reminder of this team. Shortly after the win, with fans and players still bouncing up and down in celebration on the court, Cook made his way toward the sideline where he offered an orange championship shirt and hat to his mother.
Ruthie Cook didn’t get all the fun souvenirs though.
“I’m gonna keep the ball,” her son said with a grin.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T