After he dumped in 14 points to help Winthrop secure a crucial win at Liberty on Feb. 12, 6-foot-7 senior forward Taj McCullough summed up the situation.
"This is a big win," he said, although neither he nor his teammates did too much celebrating after ending the Flames' 11-game home win streak. "It puts us in second place, and hopefully we can win out.
"But we just have to come to practice every day, keep working and getting better."
Maybe it's because the Eagles' mainstays -- seniors McCullough, Chris Gaynor, Michael Jenkins and Antwon Harris -- have been down this road before and understand it's not a good idea to look ahead, but they aren't paying much attention to the Big South Conference standings right now.
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And that's fine with coach Randy Peele as the Eagles (16-9, 7-3 Big South) host Radford (8-16, 3-6) at 7 tonight in an effort to hang on to second place and keep the heat on UNCA with two weeks left in the regular-season race.
"I mentioned it at practice (on Thursday)," Peele said of the standings. "I told them UNC Asheville got beat at High Point, and that it's wide open. But all we can worry about is getting better every day.
"This team can't do it any other way."
A couple of weeks ago, Peele had talked to his team about a couple of "five-game segments" and what they needed to do. But losses at UNCA and Coastal Carolina in the first five-game stretch buried those plans.
Those losses turned this into a one-day-at-a-time season.
"Every team goes into a funk at some point in a season," Peele said. "The one thing I told them after the Asheville game is that Asheville hadn't gone through any adversity yet. Now, they have a sprained ankle (to starting guard Bryan Smithson). There you go."
In the loss at Asheville, Gaynor, McCullough and Mantoris Robinson were slowed by the flu and Harris was still -- in fact, still is -- trying to bounce back from ankle injury. The Eagles have battled back from their adversity to get back into the race.
"If you can't overcome adversity," Peele said, "you're not going to be a champion."
While he and his players might not have the Big South standings pinned to the bulletin board, a lot of folks do, and they see six teams within three games of first place. Today's games can begin the process of clearing the logjam.
UNC Asheville (18-6, 7-2), with Smithson (ankle) and center Kenny George (knees) not 100 percent healthy, tries to keep first place in a dangerous home game against VMI (12-11, 4-5), which has Reggie Williams back in the lineup. The Bulldogs had to go to overtime to beat the Keydets last month, and that was with Smithson, who did not play three nights ago at High Point, healthy.
Liberty (13-12, 5-5), which has not played well on the road, goes to Coastal Carolina (12-11, 5-5), which has been tough to beat in Kimbel Arena. Liberty beat Coastal by 19 in the first matchup.
High Point (14-10, 5-5), which looked out of the race after last week's loss at Winthrop, has climbed back into the picture but must go to Charleston Southern (7-17, 1-8), which has given teams problems in the CSU Fieldhouse. The Bucs are 6-6 at home, with their lone league win coming there against Radford.
If the Eagles are cheering for anyone today, it's Liberty. Since the Eagles swept the regular-season series with the Flames and split with Coastal and High Point, they need Liberty to finish above those two in the standings. UNC Asheville split with Liberty, meaning Winthrop would hold the edge in a tiebreaker with the Bulldogs.
But Peele reminded his players this week -- and will keep it up -- that the only thing they can control is how they play. If they don't play well and win, it won't matter what other teams do.
Starting with Radford.
The Eagles beat the Highlanders handily, 77-59, a month ago, with Jenkins scoring 20, McCullough 16, Robinson 14 and Gaynor 11. But coach Brad Greenberg's Highlanders have gone 3-3 since and are playing their best basketball of the year. They beat Liberty at home, won on the road at VMI and dropped a two-point game to High Point.
The Eagles have to do what they did in the first game -- control 6-8 forward Joey Lynch-Flohr and make scoring difficult for guards Amir Johnson, Kenny Thomas and Martell McDuffy. Lynch-Flohr had six points and the guards were a combined 10-of-27 in the first game.
The Eagles won the boards 35-34, but the Highlanders had 19 offensive rebounds. Radford also committed 18 turnovers.
Peele said "this is another game that scares me," because he's not sure what defenses his team might see.
"My thing is this," he said. "We've got to keep our focus. We've got to keep getting better at the stuff we want to do."
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