Winthrop's Eagles, having dropped two straight road games and three overall in the Big South Conference, hope the Winthrop Coliseum is enough to get them back on the right track as they head down the home stretch of the regular season.
The Eagles (14-9, 5-3 Big South) have been a different team at home, and they hope that continues this afternoon, when they face High Point (13-9, 5-3) in a game for second place in the standings. The Eagles have seven regular-season games left, five at home, including four of six in conference.
"We've been a different team at home," coach Randy Peele said. "This is a big game, a big game for our fans and hopefully the atmosphere will be really, really good."
The Eagles have led at the half in every conference game. They've been able to close the deal at home, but not consistently on the road. In the second halves of the three road losses, the Eagles have given up significant scoring runs, the opposition has shot better than 50 percent and Winthrop allowed an average of 40 points.
In three home conference wins, the Eagles have held opponents to 33 percent shooting, 30 percent on 3-pointers, had a plus-32 rebounding edge and held teams to 44 points.
On the road, Winthrop has allowed 41 percent, 39 percent from behind the arc, won the boards by a net five rebounds and allowed just over 61 points per game.
"Defensively," Peele said, "we've just got to be more aggressive."
A loud crowd usually helps the effort. As of Friday afternoon, a crowd of around 4,000 was expected, which might be disappointing. Winthrop students apparently haven't embraced this game with the same vigor of Coastal Carolina, a game that drew more than 5,800.
But Peele just hopes the home court helps shake his team out of a two-game slump. They can't afford another loss and have any hope of catching UNC Asheville (7-0), which plays at Liberty tonight, for the regular-season title.
The Eagles are coming off that disastrous 50-49 loss at Coastal Carolina on Feb. 6.
"My concern," Peele said, "is where we are emotionally. Will we be charged up because it's a new day, or still hung over from the loss?"
Seniors Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris have never lost three straight league games. That last happened in 2004.
That today's opponent is the Panthers might help. After beating the Eagles 62-61 in the conference opener, Panthers fans and players celebrated at mid-court after snapping an eight-game losing streak to the Eagles. High Point is 2-20 in the series.
In High Point's win, guard Mike Jefferson did it on the offensive end, scoring 23 points and hitting 6-of-9 3-pointers, and Eugene Harris did it at the defensive end, doing a lockdown job on Jenkins, holding him to no field goals in six attempts and a season-low two points.
And Arizona Reid did what he does better than anyone else in the league, with a 19-point, 14-rebound double-double.
McCullough had just eight points, and Harris played 28 minutes on a badly sprained ankle.
Gaynor kept the Eagles alive with 21 points, his season high. And the defense, Peele said, "was good enough to win."
The Eagles had a shot to win at the buzzer, but Harris' short bank shot didn't fall.
After that win, the Panthers went into a two-game funk, losing at UNC Asheville and at home to Coastal Carolina. It was the fifth straight year the Panthers lost their next game after playing Winthrop.
But since that two-game slide, coach Bart Lundy's team has won four of five, with the only loss at Liberty. The Panthers were the preseason pick to win the league, and, like Winthrop, can't afford another loss if they want to catch UNCA.
And a loss by either team would also tighten the race for fourth in the standings. The top four teams in the regular season get to host first-round games in the conference tournament.
"My big concern is the mental aspect," Peele said. "We're in the fight of our life."
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