It took a little time to get it done on Tuesday, but Winthrop's Eagles put themselves in a position to win the Big South Conference regular-season championship by beating Charleston Southern 63-49.
And guess what? They did it with defense -- again.
For a 10-minute stretch in the second half, the Eagles were as good as they've been all season on the defensive end, turning a three-point lead into a 17-point bulge.
It was something Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh, a former Winthrop assistant, has seen before.
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"That's the best defense we've seen all year by anybody we've played," he said. "We were in the game until about the 12-minute mark and then scored two points over the next seven minutes. They locked us down.
"Their defense is as good or better than it was last year. Maybe I shouldn't say it's better. I might get hit by a lightning bolt from Wichita, Kansas. They are good."
The Bucs shot 43 percent, which is the best any conference team except UNC Asheville and High Point has done against the Eagles. But the Eagles had goals of limiting the Bucs to fewer than eight 3-pointers and five layups. The Bucs made just 5-of-15 threes and didn't get to the glass often enough.
Mantoris Robinson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, was the leader again, this time taking on 5-10 Jamarco Warren, who was averaging 15 points per game. Robinson held him to 2-for-13 shooting and six points. One of his two field goals came in the final two minutes.
"He's quick," Robinson said. "I just had to stay with him and use my length."
Robinson said it doesn't matter who he guards.
"I think I'm a pretty good defender and take pride in it," he said.
The rest of the team must think the same way.
"They're the best defensive team in the league," said Radebaugh, whose team slipped to 9-19, 3-10 and into the No. 8 slot for the tournament. They could see the Eagles again in seven days in the first round of the tournament.
But the Eagles have to be good for one more game in the regular season, unless they get some help tonight. Winthrop (19-10, 10-3) can clinch the regular season tonight, if UNC Asheville (8-4) loses at home to Coastal Carolina.
If not, the Eagles host UNCA at 4 p.m. on Saturday and can take the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed for next week's tournament with a win. An Asheville win tonight and on Saturday would create a tie, but the Bulldogs would get the No. 1 seed and the chance to host every round of the tournament because it would have swept the regular-season series.
"Saturday is a big game," Winthrop coach Randy Peele said. "One thing we're guaranteed is at least a co-championship, and we feel great about that. But we have the chance to be the outright champion.
"This program is based on winning championships. Expectations are high."
The Eagles, knowing they were playing the league's last-place team, may have come into Tuesday without enough fire. And with the Bucs a much better team than they were a month ago, the game was tight for about 30 minutes.
"I was concerned about our energy level all day," Peele said. "We looked emotionless. We told our guys they couldn't just show up and win. It was a battle."
Before leading 30-27 at the break, Winthrop led by as many as 12 in the first half.
A lot of that came from the play of 6-9 junior college transfer Andy Buechert, who had his best game with 10 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. He was active and physical inside.
The Bucs, beating the Eagles off the dribble, went on a 14-3 run that got them back in the game in the final seven minutes of the half. And Winthrop, forgetting about its inside advantage, settled for too many jumpers.
"We stopped going inside," Peele said, "but in the second half we turned it around. We had a heck of a second half."
Charleston Southern hit five of its first eight shots to start the second half and trimmed the lead to 41-38 with 13:06 left. And that's when the Eagles' defense slammed the door.
They held the Bucs to 2-for-10 shooting and forced six turnovers over the next 10 minutes, going on an 18-4 run. Freshman Charles Corbin, in for Buechert, and Robinson, who also added 13 points, scored six each in the run.
Robinson had back-to-back baskets on a tap follow and a layup off a laser of a pass from Chris Gaynor that pushed the lead to 13. And Corbin closed it with a layup after Robinson blocked Warren's shot to start a fast break.
And set up Saturday.
Radebaugh's team plays on Saturday as well, but he'd like to see the Eagles and the Bulldogs.
"We've had the pleasure of playing them in back-to-back games on the road," he joked. "But it's appropriate that the two best teams are playing in the final game for the championship."
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