The chances of the Winthrop men's basketball team hosting a game in the first round of next week's Big South Tournament have just about been buried.
Winthrop (12-15, 8-8 Big South) takes on Liberty (19-10, 13-3) at 7 tonight in the second-to-last conference game of the season. The Eagles wrap up the regular season Saturday night at home against VMI.
Winthrop, currently tied with VMI for fifth place, has to win at least one of the final two contests to have a shot at the No. 3 or 4 seed in the Big South tournament. The top four seeds receive a first-round home game.
Eight of the 10 conference teams qualify for the tournament. Only Presbyterian and Radford will not play in this postseason. PC is not yet eligible as it continues its transition to Division I. Radford (5-22, 2-14 Big South) has been eliminated.
Coastal Carolina has locked up the top seed, although the school is under an NCAA investigation. The team's leading scorer, Desmond Holloway, was indefinitely suspended on Feb. 18 due to an eligibility issue. Holloway's return, and the possibility of Coastal being forced to forfeit games, is unknown.
The Chants, down to seven scholarship players and a walk on, have lost two straight games in Holloway's absence. Coastal had the nation's longest winning streak at 22 games until the suspension.
Liberty has clinched the No. 2 seed. Gardner-Webb is in at No. 8. The rest of the seeds are up for grabs.
Here's what we know regarding Winthrop:
Heading into tonight's game, the Eagles can earn the No. 3 seed only if they win the final two regular season games - and UNC Asheville loses twice and Charleston Southern loses vs. Coastal Carolina.
If that scenario pans out, Winthrop would be 10-8 in league play. Asheville would finish 9-9 along with Charleston Southern. VMI and High Point could also end up 9-9. Tie breakers would then be employed to determine the fourth through seventh seeds.
Winthrop can get the No. 4 seed by beating Liberty and losing to VMI, but it gets complicated after that. A win over Liberty is imperative, though.
Asheville holds the key to Winthrop's fortune. The Bulldogs host High Point tonight and Radford on Saturday. If Asheville wins one or both games, the Eagles' chances of playing at home on Tuesday in the first round will be greatly diminished.
Winthrop has lost three consecutive games dating back to a 61-56 home loss to Coastal on Feb. 12. The Eagles followed that up with a 70-69 double overtime loss at High Point. On Saturday, Ohio dealt Winthrop a 77-74 setback, in overtime, at the Coliseum.
The last two losses are reflective of the Winthrop season. At High Point the Eagles trailed 27-13 at the half and then limited the Panthers to just three second half field goals. Against Ohio, Winthrop had to overcome a 20-point first-half deficit. The team woke up to hold Ohio to a single field goal in the final 10 minutes of the first half and then forced overtime.
This Eagles team has been digging itself out of holes all season.
Winthrop coach Randy Peele, in his 28th season, said he doesn't remember a time he has gone through what this team has offered. The Eagles' last six losses have been by a combined 21 points and each of them has come down to the final two or three possessions.
"It's one of those years. I've lost sleep. I've lost weight," Peele said. "You can do all the X's and O's you want, but sometimes kids just have to make shots."
Against Ohio, Reggie Middleton had a chance to win the game in regulation but was stripped of the ball before he could shoot. Andre Jones got a good look at a 3-pointer to tie the game at the end of the overtime period but the shot was off line.
At High Point, Middleton made a go-ahead shot to give his team a 69-68 lead with 10.1 seconds left in the second overtime. A defensive lapse allowed the Panthers' Nick Barbour to drive the length of the court for the game-winning basket.
"I'm not pleased with the year we've had," Peele said. "It's been taxing on the team, the staff and me personally. It's like this; we have to finish. Sometimes it's a shot, sometimes it's a stop."
Sometimes it's free throw shooting. If the Eagles had shot just 60 percent from the free throw line, they could have five more league wins and all this talk about seeding wouldn't matter.
Can the season be salvaged?
"Absolutely," Peele claimed. "The characteristic of this team is that it is resilient."
The salvage project begins with Liberty, a team that downed Winthrop, 75-72, back on Dec. 4, 2010 in the second league game of the season for both squads.
Charles Corbin didn't play in that game due to a suspension. George Valentine got into early foul trouble. He failed to score and got but two rebounds in 13 minutes of action. Robbie Dreher and Andre Jones combined for 44 points.
Liberty's Evan Gordon led all scorers with 26 points. His late-game pick-pocket of Middleton sealed the win for the Flames.
The Eagles dig in, tonight at the Coliseum.